Coffee is the unofficial beverage of the workforce. Many people have a cup of coffee glued to their hands from the moment they wake up, and upon entering the office, a crowd coworkers gathers around the machine to fill up.
Whether it’s in the form of coffee, soda, tea, or an energy drink, we seek caffeine to give us a performance boost, but that may not always be reality. Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it hones our attention to a specific task. This can be great for certain jobs—data entry, filing and organizing, sending out inquiries, or some other repetitive and tedious task. The opposite side of our brain, where we form creative ideas—that is, the ability to link ideas and concepts in novel ways—may suffer.
The New Yorker reports on a recent study that credits a break in intense concentration in which participants’ minds were allowed to wander led to better performance at creative tasks. The unconscious associative processing required to make novel connections did not come with intense focus on a fixed idea or task, no matter what the energy level.
Additionally, while we seek caffeine to fend off exhaustion, that same quality also inhibits the sleep cycle. We’ve all heard the countless benefits of REM; its effect on creative thinking is no different. Caffeine consumption, even if early in the day, makes it more difficult for people to fall asleep and then, once they are asleep, it is more difficult to hit the REM cycle.
The same New Yorker article highlights an additional study in which people who experienced REM sleep performed better on two tests of creative thinking than those who simply rested or napped without entering the REM cycle.
During REM, their brains were able to integrate unassociated information so that, upon waking up, they were more adept at solving problems they had been primed with earlier. Without sound sleep, the effect dissipated. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to negative effects on other elements associated with creativity and thought clarity: it diminishes emotional intelligence, constructive thinking, and the ability to cope with stress.
We don’t expect everyone to give up caffeine this instant, however let’s reconsider the way we use it. For instance, rather than unconsciously reaching for a cup of coffee in the morning out of habit, try reserving it for performing certain tasks—specifically those repetitive and formulaic ones. When forming creative ideas, try taking a walk outside, fitting in some quiet time, or utilizing one of the lounge spaces in your workplace to actively avoid thinking about the task at hand. The best ideas come up when you’re not fishing for them.