Everything that kills me, makes me feel alive
– Counting Stars, by the band One Republic.
Why is it that the good stuff is so often, so bad for you? Coffee, ice cream, crisps. And these are the relatively innocent vices.
Right now, I can smell the tantalising aroma of freshly-ground coffee; and I am forcing myself to ignore it. But as a French person might say: ‘j’exagère,’ as I am in the gym, and the coffee here is pretty resistible.
All the same, a coffee would be good right now; even a bad one, as for the last two nights, I have been kept awake by our toddler’s cough.
But a recent holiday had caused me to re-evaluate. I had realised three things:
But was I really being so good to myself with the afternoon frappé?
On my return, it dawned on me that I felt something that I had not felt for some time: rested. Indeed, I realised that I had been sleep-walking through most days, using tea and coffee as crutches to get me through the afternoon lull. A biscuit here, and slice of bread there, have become new, unhelpful habits. I graze on them ‘just to keep me going’.
Indeed, several studies show that sleeping problems are a global phenomenon, with one study showing that over 30% in Western Europe and over 50% in the US report sleeping difficulties, with most people – just like me –not doing anything about it.
So I decided to take sleep seriously. Some research by Trinity College Dublin showed that:
Most people feel better able to cope with stress within just 30 days of quitting stimulants.
It appeared that coffee and me needed to go our separate ways.
In a world where abstinence is associated with poorer, far-flung times of long, long ago, it is wise to consider if certain habits are helping us at all.
The idea of giving up something as “harmless” as coffee might seem ridiculous. This is no surprise, as there is a big industry that promotes the idea that coffee drinking is for affluent, refined and sexy people (think George Clooney).
But if coffee is making you stressed and depriving one of sleep? The writer, Stephen King refers to the pseudo-productivity that stimulants can provide:
Quitting smoking slowed me down; nicotine is a great synapse enhancer. The problem is that it’s killing you at the same time it’s helping you compose. *
So I gave up coffee and alcohol for July. I allow myself a glass or two of wine at the weekend. I have one cup of coffee a week. Our bedroom is now completely dark.
And what are the results? Third week in, and the black perma-circles under my eyes have faded, and I have more energy. Not a whole lot more energy, but at least 15% more energy. So this is not a miracle story, my life is not transformed, but my life is better.
I would like to profess that I am more centred, but a more accurate description would be “less narky”, and “less prone to be ruffled”.
And while the title of this blog may be somewhat disingenuous, as I am not necessarily trading in “Good Times for the Great”. In fact, a more accurate title might be: “Can you give up your bad habits, to allow yourself to flourish?”
So what does this example show? That small changes over time can yield significant changes, either positive or negative. The importance of habits and discipline is not new. Aristotle was onto this idea quite some time ago when he said:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
I imagine most readers would baulk at the idea of giving up coffee. After all, caffeine affects people differently. To be clear, the aim of this article is not to demonise coffee, or to get you to give up coffee, but to encourage you to get real about which habits are serving you; and which habits are not.
I did expect that sleeping better would help me better handle the – at times frazzling nature of parenting and career – while I love both. An unexpected benefit was that the 15% energy increase has enhanced my ability to better stick to goals and deadlines, when normally it is a case of:
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. **
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*Stephen King, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft.
**Quote from Douglas Adams.
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