The coffee hour

how to strike the perfect

work / sleep / caffeine balance

What’s the perfect work, sleep, caffeine balance? Susannah Butter mainlines the rocket fuel and gets smart tech to work out her bedtime.


Beside the computer there is a steaming cup of black coffee. It’s my second hit of the day. This dose contains around 40mg of caffeine that soon will course through my system and power me up for a super-productive afternoon of work. I’m already tempted to schedule in an early-evening flat white but should probably resist as it could lead to a sleepless night. Maybe I’ll settle for a green tea.

What I am in search of is the perfect work/sleep/caffeine balance. It’s pretty elusive. Journalist Murray Carpenter’s new book Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Hooks, Helps and Hurts Us, calls caffeine an “unregulated drug” and aims to uncover its effect.

Meanwhile Asa Raskin, VP at Jawbone, who has invented an app to help with bean counting, says: “Caffeine is the world’s most consumed drug, but despite that we don’t have a great deal of data about how it affects real people in the world. A study recently came out saying while we know it’s a diuretic that’s no longer true for people who drink it regularly. If something as basic as that is true, how does it affect your sleep?”

Raskin is behind Jawbone Up’s latest app, Up Coffee, which launched in the UK last week. Jawbone’s goal is to track one million cups of coffee and one million nights of sleep. With an estimated 70 million coffees drunk every day in the UK and coffee shops on every other London street it shouldn’t take Jawbone too long to get the data.

Up Coffee is the latest add-on for the Up wristband, an intelligent fitness and wellness contraption that Londoners have been using for a year to track their habits, and hopefully put them on a better course. After inputting my age, weight and height, the app is extremely easy to use. Every time I have some caffeine — and that includes soft drinks, chocolate or energy supplements — I log it on my phone. Then the app will tell me whether I am “wired”, “sleep ready” or in between, as well as how well I will sleep tonight.

In the evening, I put on a lightweight wristband and press a button to tell it I am in sleep mode so it can track how much I move and my quality of sleep. The app can be used without the wristband, to track caffeine, but it won’t be able to collect slumber stats.

In the morning I am presented with an informative graph about how long I slept and how much of it was sound or light. Raskin says this is important. “Sound sleep correlates to optimism the next day. From a study of 1,500 people we found that those who sleep soundly were 16 per cent more optimistic and 20 per cent more attractive.”

The app recommends articles should you wish to learn more about the science behind your behaviour, and data to see how you measure up.

So far, Raskin has found that caffeine susceptibility varies. This is consistent with a recent study that found that there is a heritable gene variant which enables the liver to process caffeine more efficiently. “Genes mean we metabolise caffeine at different rates,” says Raskin. “My sleep pattern is not affected if I drink later on but I’ve had emails from people who said they can’t drink after 11am. They thought they were crazy but now, seeing the app, they’ve found out that others have the same problem. And for other people drinking it at a scheduled time makes them sleep better.”

11863428_1210403098985630_910640267291196198_nCarpenter finds that those who smoke or are on the Pill need twice as much caffeine to get the same buzz as those who are not; and for most people it takes 20 minutes to kick in. In Japan, scientists are trying to combine theanine, the calming ingredient in tea, with coffee to create a “soothing” double espresso — perfect for staying alert yet calm in work negotiations.

After a week using the app, I found I was using caffeine more effectively —  drinking cleverly. I learned to recognise when it would really help give me a lift and when it was just a treat to be enjoyed for the taste because I had enough energy already. There’s no reason to feel guilty about either. I am not as dependent as I thought (or maybe it’s just that others are worse than me). I consume an average of 126mg of caffeine a day. That’s 124mg less than the average female in the UP community.

As yet I am unable to identify sleep and craving patterns that specifically relate to caffeine intake, as distinct from other factors. One day I had an 8pm black tea (around 30mg of caffeine) but still managed four hours of sound sleep and three of light. I fell asleep in 10 minutes. Another day I had no caffeine after 2pm but took 40 minutes to fall asleep.

After speaking to regulators all over the world, caffeine skeptic Carpenter says: “It is a definitive conclusion, given what we know now, that coffee won’t kill you.”

Phew. The Raskin approach is softer. “Our app promotes mindfulness. Just tracking coffee tells you what you already know but in conjunction with other factors such as diet and exercise, gives a holistic approach. Being aware of what you are drinking can change behaviour.”

I’ll raise a flat white to that. Cheers to smart consumption.


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