An experiment in breaking a caffeine addiction

I have a long running addiction to caffeine, to the tune of having probably averaged more than 300mg / day (usually in the form of a significant quantity of black coffee) for most of my adult life.

I would like to eliminate this, at least for a time. I don’t regard it as a problem per se, but due to reasons I want to establish a baseline for what life without caffeine is like.

I’ve tried this a number of times, through a process of going cold turkey, suffering, and then giving up again after about a month when the prospect of feeling like this forever became too much to bear. In reality I believe that after a 2 or 3 months the addiction should have fully worn off and I should feel “normal” (I’m aware that the official claim is 1-2 weeks, but I don’t believe it and the literature on caffeine addiction is so scarce that I feel entirely justified in this), but it sure doesn’t feel that way at the time.

Additionally, sometimes I just have… lets say bad days, and caffeine really helps me get through those.

So it’s pretty clear that the past strategy of just trying really hard is not going to work and it was time to try something different.

Well, I’ve been trying something different for the past few months, and while I’m definitely not out of the woods yet, I think I’ve found a pretty good path to getting there and I’m confident enough that this is going to work that I thought it might be time for a progress report.

It comes in two parts:

The first step was to decouple caffeine from the ritual of coffee. I usually started my mornings with a strong cup of black coffee, and I’d be the first to admit that this served a psychological purpose as much as a physiological one.

This turned out to actually be quite simple to do: Get a good decaf coffee and some caffeine pills. I’ve been drinking the Monmouth decaf and while it’s certainly not the best coffee I’ve ever had, it’s solidly in the category of good coffee. This means that I can start the day with a nice strong cup of coffee that happens not to contain caffeine, and control my caffeine intake entirely in pill form.

Drinking decaf coffee and taking caffeine pills seems perverse, but it’s actually been really useful. As well as the intended benefit of decoupling the two from each other so that I can have either of coffee or caffeine without the other, the caffeine pills make it much easier to regulate exactly how much caffeine I have. I suspect the fact that it makes it very obvious that this is a drug I’m taking doesn’t hurt either.

Anyway, that wasn’t enough to actually break the addiction, but I felt it did help a lot in getting a handle on my intake.

The second thing, which is by far the more important of the two, is a new experiment in using Beeminder.

The goal is to move to a habit where I spend increasingly long periods of time without caffeine. There’s no expectation that I’ll quit caffeine outright, just that I’m going to spend enough time off caffeine to keep the worst of the addiction at bay. Then, over time, I can gradually increase the length of these periods.

This does mean that I spend life in constant low grade caffeine withdrawal, but it’s very low grade, and it comes with the benefit of never having to deal with the really terrible caffeine withdrawal that comes from a full blown addiction.

The way the Beeminder usage works is to commit to having days without caffeine such that longer periods are rewarded more by gaining more “points” the longer I’ve been without caffeine. I score one point for the first day without caffeine, two for the second, three for the third, etc. I then have to make up a certain number of points per week.

This has been working pretty well. The system encourages me to keep up streaks without enforcing it – I get to make lots of tradeoffs of the form “Do I really want to have coffee today as much as N days worth of coffee?”, so unless I really need the coffee I often don’t have it.

I’m about to start an experiment where I also get negative points for days with coffee in the same way: -1 for the first day, -2 for the second, etc. This is because I’ve noticed that if I have about a week on coffee every day then coming off it gets unpleasant again.

You can see my progress here (and maybe predict how grumpy I’m likely to be on any given day based on that…) and the community policing thread here. I’ll report back at some later date how it’s all going.

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