Coffee is the great unifier. Young and old, East Coast and West Coast (and everywhere in between), we all drink coffee. In seemingly every conceivable demographic, a majority of people consume at least one cup per day. And it's no surprise, given coffee's ability to help us cut through the early morning haze.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a mild caffeine addiction. Regular consumption of coffee has even been tied to beneficial health effects, including reduced rates of Alzheimer's disease, heart failure, and diabetes, just to name a few. And if it's making you more productive at work, why worry, right?

But what if your coffee habit is making you less productive at work? If you're like me, you start to feel a little lull around mid-afternoon, and it can be tempting to reach for an extra cup of coffee to kickstart your engines. Unfortunately, that late day fix could be destroying your focus and productivity for tomorrow.

Caffeine and the Circadian Rhythm

Caffeine is a powerful drug, as addictive as nicotine, that operates as a central nervous system stimulant. As a result, it can help us break through the grogginess of the early morning and get going at top speed right away. But like all tools, caffeine could be both helpful and harmful.

Excessive caffeine consumption, on the order of 400 milligrams or more per day, can significantly disrupt sleep patterns. The effect is amplified if some of that caffeine is consumed later in the day. While you might be able to doze off come bedtime, there is plenty of long-standing empirical evidence that demonstrates you don't get your best sleep with a head full of caffeine

The result is generally tiredness and sluggishness the next day, which will likely cause you to increase your caffeine intake. However, without adequate sleep, our thinking slows and our focus shifts more easily, making us less productive. This was demonstrated in a 2009 study by the U.S. National Library of Medicine which showed adolescents that used caffeine through the night participated less in school and suffered from lethargy during the day. 

Poor concentration and reduced productivity are symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, which can also bring on bouts of irritability and headaches. Like any addiction, withdrawal often drives users to double down on their usage, pushing up their tolerance and compounding the effects. Since caffeine is legal, unregulated, and highly unlikely to kill you, however, it remains easily accessible.

Regulating Caffeine Usage for Optimized Performance

But fear not! Total abstinence from caffeine doesn't have to be the answer (cue your collective sigh of relief). Unlike more harmful drugs, caffeine users can easily regulate their intake to optimize their productivity, enhance their focus, and still get a good night's sleep every evening. It's as easy as following a few simple suggestions:

  • Don't consume caffeine after 2 p.m.: First and foremost, limiting your caffeine intake to the morning or, at latest, the early afternoon, will give you plenty of time to get it out of your system before bedtime. That will allow you to more easily enter your REM sleep cycle and gain a deep restfulness that latent caffeine levels prevent.

  • Regulate dosage: Most research suggests that 400 milligrams of caffeine a day is safe for a healthy adult. That roughly equates to four cups of coffee. However, even reaching this level could be enough to cause withdrawal symptoms and disrupt your sleep patterns. Consider cutting back to a two or three cup maximum per day.

  • Try a smaller cup: If you reduce the size of your cup, you might find that you're satisfied with less caffeine than you've been taking in each time you fill up. If you use a smaller cup and maintain the frequency that you refill it, you'll automatically be consuming less caffeine though seemingly nothing has changed.

Like most things in life, finding balance is key. If you can moderate your caffeine intake and limit it to the first half of the day only, you'll likely find you sleep better and remain sharper and more productive the following day. After all, isn't that the reason you turned to caffeine in the first place?