Leaving aside whether it’s useful or sensible to give up coffee, I thought it might be interesting to post some thoughts about how to give up. Perhaps these thoughts might apply to other kinds of habit-forming substances. Your mileage may vary.
I’ve given up coffee several times, for several reasons. I’m not suggesting you do and if you do, I’m not suggesting you do it forever. You may have some short term reason for doing so, or you might want to do it for the long-term. My suggestions about getting off, because I’ve gone on and off, I don’t have much to offer about long-term strategies other than – if you end up with a habit again, just do all this again.
The main thing I want to point out is that most coffee habits actually have three distinct aspects woven together: addiction, psychological habit and social habit.
Addiction is a physical dependency. Your brain builds a dependency on having caffeine fed to it regularly, when you stop it goes into caffeine withdrawal causing headaches (and possibly other side-effects). I once went from about 7-8 espressos a day to none overnight – I’ve described the effect as “wearing the iron crown” for three days. Imagine a big crown cast from pig iron with spikes that dig into your head. As I recall it was also three days in which everyone hated me and I hated everyone: I really don’t recommend it.
Because addiction is a physical dependency based on chemical needs, I’d recommend treating it chemically – just make sure that you wean yourself off caffeine over a few days. You can do this by cutting down cups, slowly substituting decaf for caffeinated coffee or using caffeine pills (much like you’d use nicotine gum or lozenges when quitting smoking).
But, you’re also likely to have a psychological habit of drinking coffee – maybe you associate coffee as a reward drink, a drink marking a mid-point in the afternoon, a drink you have when you wake up. You have an individual pattern of associations between various times and actions and drinking coffee.
An approach to giving up that deals purely with the chemical addiction, but not with the habitual behaviour patterns is less likely to work. I’d recommend finding substitute behaviours – maybe other drinks to fill the gap: tea, decaf, herbal drinks – or in the case of rewards things like dark chocolate. However in the world of rewards you tend to drift to booze, candy and cigarettes and really, coffee’s the lesser of many evils, but if you can find a healthy substitute reward that works for you, go for it.
The final aspect is the social habit. You probably “go for coffee” with friends. I have always had a cup of coffee with my beloved as a way to start the day, coffee often comes after a shared meal and so on. In many cases, we hang out with other coffee drinkers whose social persona includes “coffee drinker” as a self-identifier, as does one’s own. This aspect is not about your personal habit, or your chemical dependency, it’s about social pressure.
Depending on how big a part coffee drinking plays in the group’s culture, this part can be easy or very, very hard. If it’s just a basic social habit to have a cup of coffee with friends, it’s fairly easy to substitute green tea or a herbal tea for your usual cup of coffee without much problem.
But if you hang out with people whose usual drink is a single shot of espresso, who know what a ristretto is and who laugh out loud when a friend orders a “decaf skim latte”, you may have some issues.
You’ve really got three options in my view:
- show up a little late and order a decaf so that no-one can hear
- order whatever you want and soldier through the derision
- find new friends and stop hanging out with the coffee pushers
My approach this time through has been aimed at minimising pain and taking it easy.
- I bought a really nice-tasting, organic, Fair Trade decaf coffee for our espresso machine
- I started substituting decaf espressos in place of my usual, without changing frequency
- after a couple of days, I tried only drinking decaf until I started to feel a headache or some withdrawal symptoms and then add a “medicinal dose” of caffeinated espresso
- over a week or so, those incidents naturally started to space out
- I started to substitute green tea and herbals in place of some of the decafs
… and that’s pretty much it. Now once or twice a week I have a cup of caffeinated coffee if I feel like it, and I rarely do. I start the day with a decaf with Anthony because we like to make coffee for each other. If my friends raise their eyebrows when I order decaf (and they mostly don’t) I laugh.
That’s my thoughts. Your mileage may, of course, vary. I hope some of that’s been of some value.