In the 1600s caffeine made its way to Europe and helped society to wean off alcohol to some extent. Before caffeine, workers drank copious amounts of alcohol. Babies drank cider, workers drank gin and farmers took beer breaks. The fermentation process killed microbes that were abundant in water, but now we had another option that brought fringe benefits. Caffeine meant society could get through more linear tasks and save the alcohol for the end of the day (unless, of course, we made those coffees Irish). The new technology of electric light, coupled with coffee meant we could break our bonds with circadian rhythms and work into the evening and night.
We continue to learn more about caffeine, including how it impacts both our focus and sleep. Coffee’s impact on sleep provides an apt metaphor for organisational disruption and decline.
Stealing From Sleep
Melatonin and adenosine are the two main neurotransmitters involved in our sleep-wake cycle. Although research is ongoing, our current understanding is that the build-up of both melatonin and adenosine in our bodies makes us feel drowsy. Melatonin and adenosine normally peak together around 9 pm, signalling that it’s time for sleep. Adenosine accumulates steadily throughout the day. The more adenosine we have, the drowsier we feel. Sleep lowers our adenosine levels, but if we don’t get enough sleep, any residual adenosine in our body will make us tired. We need to sleep longer the following night to purge excess adenosine. Accumulating adenosine is akin to building up a sleep debt.
Caffeine is an antagonist that interferes with the accumulation of adenosine and, as a result, stops us from feeling drowsy. Caffeine reverses the effects of adenosine. In a way, it’s kryptonite for adenosine. Caffeine blocks adenosine by attaching itself to the same receptors that adenosine would normally latch onto. This prevents the drowsiness that occurs as levels of adenosine increase. Sounds great right? But there is a catch (loses the hardcore coffee addicts now :).
For those of us who grab that coffee in the morning to avoid morning drowsiness, it is important to understand that we could be in a vicious cycle. That morning grogginess might be a build-up of adenosine levels accumulated during the day that was not fully dissipated during sleep. By drinking too many caffeinated beverages throughout the day, the body builds up excessive amounts of adenosine. When this excess is not fully flushed from the system during sleep, we feel groggy the following morning. So what do we do? We grab a coffee and the cycle continues in a game of caffeinated musical chairs, but the chairs eventually run out.
In addition, we impact our cortisol awakening response. To get us out of bed in the morning, we naturally release the stress hormone cortisol. Caffeine has a similar effect as cortisol to kick-start us in the morning. There is a catch. By drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages we disturb that cortisol awakening response and negatively tamper with our natural sleep cycle.
Stealing From The Future
In his book “Why We Sleep”, Matthew Walker tells us, “Caffeine has an average half-life of five to seven hours. Let’s say that you have a cup of coffee after your evening dinner, around 7:30 p.m. This means that by 1:30 a.m., 50% of that caffeine may still be active and circulating throughout your brain tissue. In other words, by 1:30 a.m., you’re only halfway to completing the job of cleansing your brain of the caffeine you drank after dinner.” (For a coffee lover like me, that means no more coffee after 1-2 pm and 2-3 cups per day.)
Drinking coffee steals from sleep. We fuel the present with our future. Think about it. We work ourselves ragged to provide a certain standard of living for ourselves and our families. We can enjoy life when we retire we might think. Then when we retire, we have accumulated “workplace adenosine” and we have a debt to pay. That debt accumulates in the form of illness, neurodegenerative disorders like dementia (brain plaques accumulated from poor sleep), chronic stress, obesity, muscle atrophy and sometimes guilt because we have spent more time preoccupied with work than being present with the very family that we have been working to provide for! (I have been there, coffee-fueled to the hilt and thankfully snapped out of it several years back.)
This kicking of the can down the road means we will eventually pay the price because the body keeps the score. This personal “can kicking” mirrors what happens in organisations that neglect innovation, experimentation, and investments in their future. As Innovation Show guest, Elvin Turner told us, “Business leaders are stealing from their future to fuel today” or as Innovation Show guest Mark Johnson told us, “Business leaders are being motivated and rewarded to hear their houses by burning their furniture.“
We can be critical of leaders for managing today at the expense of tomorrow, but as Mark Johnson alluded to above, they are incentivised to do so. In some cases, an investment in the future will initiate an attack by board members, investors and shareholders alike as happened to John Antioco when he tried to launch Total Access and remove late fees in Blockbuster.
It’s human nature that when we’re under stress, we tend to narrow our scope even further and fall back on conventional strategies, just like it is easier to reach for that extra cup of coffee rather than question our consumption and rewire our habits. As the old saying goes, “We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children”, in a similar vein, we do not inherit our future, we create it through our actions today.
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