What Happened When We Let Science Dictate How We Drank Coffee

Tell a caffeine addict she can’t drink a cup of coffee first thing in the morning and things could get a little ugly–or maybe not.

What Happened When We Let Science Dictate How We Drank Coffee
[Image: Flickr user Thomas Leth-Olsen]

Coffee is more than just a fetishized drink or a daily ritual. It has the power to transform your productivity. But maybe we’ve been going about it all wrong.


Researcher Steven Miller of the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesada found that because our bodies already produce natural hormones that make us feel more alert at certain times in the day, we should curb our caffeine consumption during these times so as not to diminish its effect when we need it most.

He found that the best times to drink coffee (or any caffeinated beverage) for those who wake up between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. is from 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. and between 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., since this is when our cortisol levels usually drop off and we begin to feel sluggish.

In other words, having a cup of coffee when you first get up doesn’t actually make you feel more awake.

While the science behind this seemed pretty sound, we wanted to know if the payoff for adjusting our coffee consumption is worth the sacrifice. Some were able to pull it off and loved the results, while others weren’t even able to make a dent in the challenge.

Here’s What Happened

Prior to the challenge, my caffeine routine went a little something like this:

  • Between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.: Wake up, fall out of bed, and pour a portable tumbler-full of homemade cold brew to accompany my getting-ready-for-work routine. Then head into work while drinking my coffee.

  • Between 10 a.m. and Noon: Time for one or two cups of the company coffee–blech! But it gets the job done.

  • Between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.: Have a Diet Coke with lunch (more caffeine).

  • Between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.: The caffeine consumption continues with a cup of English Breakfast tea.

The start to this challenge was a little bumpy; at the end of day one I was wrecked. By 5 p.m. I had to leave work early because of a massive, nauseating migraine that was brewing. When I got home I curled up on my bed unable to sleep it off because of the deafening thumping in my head. I was a sight for sore eyes.


I’m not the only one who had a hard time adjusting to the new routine. Editorial Intern Samantha Cole, who started this challenge a month ago, says adjusting to a new habit was the most difficult. “It was surprisingly hard to break (my habit of using) the coffee maker as an alarm clock.”

Since the parameters of the challenge stated no coffee until at least 9:30 a.m., I forwent my beloved morning cold brew and stuck to the company coffee, which I didn’t start drinking until around 10 a.m. The next time I would get a jolt was around 2 p.m. when I would have my lunchtime soda. And that was it. Not another drop of coffee, soda, or tea for the rest of the day.

Much to my surprise, as the week progressed, I craved caffeine less and less.

Cole experienced the same phenomenon. “I used to have a cup in the morning while I got ready for work, a travel mug for my commute, and another cup at 10 a.m.–and I was jittery by noon,” she says. “When I skip the early morning coffee and wait until 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. for my first, that’s all I need for the day.”

Additionally, prior to the challenge I could feel my levels of alertness spiking and dropping throughout the day, but with this challenge came a smoother ebb and flow of consciousness.

“When I wasn’t chugging four or more cups throughout the day, I slept better, and in turn, didn’t need to jar myself awake with coffee to make it through the morning,” Cole says. “It was hard to break a ‘keystone habit’ like shuffling through the coffee-making motions at dawn, but once I got through the first few weeks, I didn’t need it anymore.”


Unfortunately not everybody who had designs to take this challenge was able to get off the ground floor. Fast Company Copy Editor and self-proclaimed coffee addict David Penick says he had every intention of taking the challenge, but when he woke up Monday at 6:30 a.m. after an hour of hitting snooze he knew he couldn’t wait to wrap his hands around a cup of espresso.

“I am hopelessly addicted to coffee,” Penick admits. He says he drinks at least eight cups of coffee a day and even drinks coffee at night. “I have tried in the past to cut down on my coffee consumption, but I’ve found that it is harder than quitting smoking, which I did successfully four years ago.”


About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on,, and elsewhere