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Drinking coffee at work

The link between coffee, cortisol and creativity

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I’m rarely without a cup of coffee between nine to six. On a good day, I have about five cups a day. That number sometimes doubles when we hit deadline week.

But as it turns out, drinking coffee throughout the day may not be as effective as we initially believed if you’re not taking into consideration your body’s circadian clock.

The cicadian clock is a 24-hour hormonal cycle which dictates your sleeping, eating and waking times, among other things. At certain points during this cycle, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol, which helps us feel more awake and alert.

Here’s the catch – drinking coffee when your body is already producing cortisol renders the benefits of caffeine useless. And when you consume caffeine during periods where you don’t actually need it, it builds up a higher tolerance (which would really explain why I feel like I need so many cups of coffee in one day).

By understanding when your cortisol levels dip, you can make sure your coffee breaks become more strategic and effective.

Here’s an illustration by Ryoko Iwata from her aptly named site I Love Coffee.

Ryoko Iwata, I Love Coffee

But if you’re less interested in staying awake and are more interested in being creative, ditching the coffee during cortisol-less periods might be a better idea.

A study by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks found while our peak periods are the best time to tackle challenging tasks, our off-peak periods are better for solving problems that require more insight or out-of-the-box thinking.

This is also possibly related to the fact that when we’re at our peak, we tend to filter out all distractions, rather than being relaxed and considering alternative actions or solutions.

So the next time you need to tackle a problem, determine if it needs strategic problem solving skills, or if you need to be in a more open and creative state of mind. Then decide which time of day is best for you to get down to it, and if you should grab a cup of joe to help you along.

Image: Shutterstock

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Sabrina Zolkifi
Deputy editor
Human Resources Magazine Singapore

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