Related post: Everyday belief in diminishing returns is subject to diminishing returns

Growing up as a first-generation American, and generally considered the "smart" one of the family, I started drinking instant coffee when I was 12 to keep awake during homeroom. My usual sleep window now is between 11 pm to 7 am; back then it was more around 1 am to 9; the time I had to wake up to get to school was 5. It was a necessary evil at the time.

One cup in the morning became two, and then four; when I got home, I realized I was suddenly feeling groggy, so I started drinking 1 -> 2 -> 4 once I got back as well. This unsurprisingly made my actual lack of sleep all the worse.

I think in the back of my mind, I understood intellectually that this was a Very Bad Idea. Even compared to the average person, I function really poorly when I'm tired relative to when I'm awake. But I also have an extremist bent to my personality; I felt throughout high school and much of college that if I were going to quit coffee, I wanted to do it cold turkey. I would be strong and bear the pain.

The big problem with this is that I Pavloved myself into loving the taste of coffee too much to ever have success with this after high school. (Thank Christ 12 year old me understood this was a possibility, and reflexively refused to drink anything but black coffee -- otherwise I would be several pounds heavier.)

There are downsides to drinking coffee of any variety, decaf or not. It gradually stains your teeth. Last year I paid a few hundred dollars to get my teeth whitened because frankly I found them yellowed enough to be off-putting when I looked at myself in the mirror, especially with a pale sunscreen tint on the surrounding skin creating a contrast.

But let's be honest with ourselves: Slightly stained teeth are much, much less annoying than eternal nights spent in half-sleep.

About 6 weeks ago, undergraduate winter break began here at Northwestern. I didn't have much to do, so I figured this would be a good time to wean myself off of coffee. I understood I had tried to do this before, so I decided to do the opposite thing: Make the minimum possible change that results in the maximum return. Hence the post title; ELDR stands for Everyday Life Diminishing Returns.

I knew from prior experience that I don't suffer strong withdrawal symptoms when I go without it; I just missed the taste and comfort of a warm cup of coffee. So I took $50 I had from my small pool of savings, went and bought a half-dozen jars of decaf instant coffee, sticking with the same brand to ensure the taste was as similar to the "real thing" as I could muster. I still had a few jars left of the non-decaf stuff, but I just put them away in a shelf, while I left 2 inviting jars of decaf right next to the kettle. And I promised myself that I'd stick to decaf for the rest of winter break, and see if I felt any different.

I felt very different.

I began to wake up much more refreshed from sleep. My anxiety and racing thoughts, which I had worried were so deeply ingrained as to have reached the asymptote of automaticity, quelled down to a murmur even less than what I was used to in an average 10 minute meditation sit. (My actual meditation sits I stopped doing, because I didn't need the extra help feeling less anxious!) My interactions with other people became much more relaxed and freeform. I even took that I could work for longer periods of time without getting distracted, or scared that I would be unable to crack the problem I was trying to solve. My cognitive tactic of reminding myself,

Bayesian inference suggests you will be able to solve this textbook problem, as it was literally designed to be solved, and you have literally never ran across a textbook problem you could not eventually solve with the proper amount of time and study.

became much more reflexive, and even more deeply felt, because I genuinely believed that future, non-caffeinated me would actually put in the work needed without panicking or giving up, because I had seen evidence with my own eyes of him doing just that. (I wonder if you can success spiral on top of a placebo? Probably. But caffeine is pretty well understood to fuck with your neurons, so I don't actually think this is the case.)

And I didn't have to give up coffee. The decaf stuff tastes almost exactly the same. It still scratches that itch of wanting to get to work, and setting on the kettle as a load-bearing activity to signal to myself "Time to start firing on all cylinders".


Diminishing returns is something that, for whatever reason, my body and mind recoils at.

There is a part of me that feels like a failure because while we made a very positive change through a very easy action, we "should" have taken the "true route" and kicked the habit altogether.

This is the same part of me that thinks 10 minutes of studying is worthless if we don't have 2 hours to dump into the problem, or that we should wait until we are really well-rested to bother doing something productive.

If I were to take a guess, I would actually say that people who read LessWrong are less likely than the average person to have such issues with a similar kind of demon. Diminishing returns is an amazing breath of fresh air to someone who embodies the "Brilliant, but Lazy" character trope. "Finally, I have a good, important-sounding way to tell my coworkers to chill out about something that doesn't matter anyway."

If my experience, however, sounds like yours: Fight it. Wrap your natural tendency towards being hardcore about things you want to do, and instead go hardcore about not going hardcore.

Become an acolyte of the Temple of Diminishing Returns, and sing its praises in your heart. It's a joyous song. The eternally-underrated Jacob Falkovich and I will teach you the words if you don't know them. There will be no test on them; do not make flashcards to commit them to memory. If you forget them just hum along. That's easy and it sounds good enough. 😉


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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:46 PM

I used to overuse caffeine. Every few months I would go cold turkey for a week or two, to (a) prove to myself I easily could, but also (b) mostly reset the amount I needed or thought I needed for the same benefits. I figured this worked all right.

Then a change in my home life made it necessary to sometimes be able to stay or quickly become alert and useful at odd hours of the night/morning, and a moderate amount of caffeine just wasn't enough to break through. So my partner and I instituted a new rule: (basically) no caffeine after noon, and at most one cup of coffee's worth before that; but all the decaf I wanted.

Benefits: radically better sleep quality, one dose during nighttime emergencies is sufficient, and I no longer participate in the tolerance/turkey cycle.

Couple of other ELDRs:

  • we only buy a very specific brand of eggs, vetted to be the most ethically produced available locally
  • I play as many sedentary games as I like, but incur a certain amount of exercise debt per [session]

I've been meaning to come back to this post to say thanks.

Before reading your post, it had literally never occurred to me to try decaf. I guess I thought it would be gross or pointless (to the extent I thought of it at all).

In the last two months, I've reduced my caffeine consumption by ~50%, while simultaneously increasing my total coffee consumption by about the same. This is basically the dream situation. I also noticed that most of the time, I don't really care whether it's a carefully prepared brew of the good stuff - I just want to sip on a cup of familiar-tasting hot liquid.

So, thanks for the suggestion!

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