What is Motivation?

How to Make or Break a Habit – Case Study

So as a health experiment, I tried to give up caffeine.

It was the worst day of my life!

I’m just kidding about it being one day, but seriously, I did give it up for three long months, and I managed to survive (barely). —Update— I finally did give up caffeinated coffee (I still enjoy a cup of decaf coffee now and then.) I miss the caffeine sometimes in the mornings of course, but my health is much improved.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up your daily cup of caffeine, coffee, tea, soda pop or whatever. This is just the example I’m using for how to break a habit.

People get very passionate about their beverage choices. I personally don’t care if anybody drinks coffee, tea, soda pop, beer, wine or even (gasp!) water. It is your life, enjoy it as you see fit.

But if you are interested in the experiment, here is what happened to yours truly.

The following offers some ideas on how to make or break a habit, using a few simple behavior-modification techniques.

The unfortunate thing about this world is that good habits are so much easier to give up than bad ones. ~William Somerset Maugham

One day I went in for some health tests and they told me that my adrenal glands were frazzled. Too much excitement in my life I guess. The medical folks said that coffee stimulates the adrenals and asked if I was drinking a lot of coffee. Uhmmm yeah I was doing my best to keep Starbucks profitable, no doubt. Small coffee growing nations depended on me to keep their economies going.

They were pretty persuasive though, so I decided that I needed to cut back on the caffeine. I wanted to sleep better at night. I wanted to give my adrenal glands a rest. I wanted to be more relaxed. I also thought it might be causing me to have heartburn and higher blood pressure and I wanted to put a stop to that.

Previously I had quit drinking soda pop

Some years ago I quit drinking cola soda pop. At that time I would drink that fizzy, sweet cola soda pop every day, at least once a day at lunch time, if not more.

A friend of mine was a personal trainer at a gym and he talked me into trying to give up the high-fructose corn syrup. Sure enough, one day I started drinking sparkling water instead, such as Calistoga water or Perrier or whatever was available.

That substitute worked well and I drank less and less soda, and more and more water. After a while I had kicked my cola soda pop habit. As a result, I soon felt better, slept better, and had a flatter stomach.

This past history of mine led me to believe it would be no problem for me to quit drinking coffee. Looking back now it reminds me of the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

My valiant attempt to give up caffeinated coffee

I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “I’ll just switch to decaffeinated coffee.” However the health perfectionists all said that decaf still has some trace amounts of caffeine and I had to eliminate all of it entirely.

First I slowly cut back on coffee consumption until I was only having one cup a day. That was harder than it sounds. I previously had a cup of coffee at my side many, many times during any typical day. It was like a buddy, a sidekick, a faithful friend who never let me down.

Second, I tried using black tea as a substitute. That worked, kind of. I figured, hey they drink it in Ireland, I’ll give it a go.

After that, I moved on to half black tea and half green tea. Yet I noticed that I usually felt half-asleep for much of the morning. I did sleep better at night, however.

Next I tried going to all green tea. I told myself that if billions of folks in Asia can do it, so can I. However that just wasn’t working for me, I was a zombie, so I went back to the 50-50 tea blend.

That went on for some time until eventually I got impatient and I tried going totally caffeine-free; cold turkey as they say. I drank herbal teas of various kinds. And as I was “sleepwalking” during those days I noticed that I did not get nearly as much stuff done and just didn’t feel very motivated (no buzz on, ya know?). At least I didn’t get in any car accidents, so that’s the good news.

Worst of all was, I noticed that I had gained weight. I don’t know if coffee or caffeine curbs my hunger, or if giving it up created some food cravings, but for whatever reason I found myself eating more food. I actually put on an extra ten pounds or so over several months. Yeah, not good.

A nutritionist friend told me that weight gain often happens to folks who quit smoking. Yet when people give up coffee they often lose weight, because they were having large late’ drinks with whole milk, along with a big calorie-dense muffin or pastry. Not me, I just drank it black and skipped the baked goods, so this weight gain pretty much freaked me out, as you might imagine.

Lastly, I really missed the taste of coffee. It was a real comfort food for me. I liked it, I wanted it, and I felt deprived without it.

Are you a coffee lover?

Some people are, and some people are not. I know someone who hates the taste of coffee and drinks cola soda instead. That’s fine except that he drinks huge quantities of that concoction of caffeine and high fructose corn syrup made from generically modified crops… and then tries to lecture me that it is healthier than coffee. Hey if that “belief” gets him through the day, more power to him. I used to drink it too and I would tell myself that it was no big deal.

Although I had great success with giving up soda pop some years ago, my experiment with coffee bit the dust for good when the winter holidays rolled around and I received a bottle of Bailey’s as a gift. Oh boy, I didn’t stand a chance.

Scientific studies by Leprechauns have found that Bailey’s and coffee is irresistible because it contains the four major food groups, sugar, fat, caffeine and alcohol. What more can you ask for in a product? God bless the makers of Baileys, may they live long and prosper. As Dave Barry says, I’m not making this up! (Disclaimer: Okay, well I actually was making that part up about the scientific studies by Leprechauns.)

Anyway, I went back to enjoying my coffee habit for a while, but I was only having one delightful cup a day. I would buy the very best quality, brew it thoughtfully, and really savor and enjoy every sip – instead of guzzling it mindlessly like a machine, for hours on end.

For a while this made me think that when it comes to coffee, I love it and I want it and I need it, but I can get by just fine with a far lesser amount than I previously thought I “required.”

However it was not long before the realization dawned on me that I was still dependent on caffeine, and it’s a drug that is bothering my adrenal glands. Oh dear.

The good news

This was a step in the right direction at least. Instead of drinking several large cups of coffee all day long, and not sleeping all that well, I only had the one cup in the morning and I slept a lot better at night. During the day I’d feel awake but in a relaxed way. My heartburn went away and my blood pressure went down too, so I guess the “coffee IV drip” had something to do with those issues.

Although I was still hooked on coffee and caffeine,  it was now only a small, manageable amount. There is a big difference between having one cup of coffee and having half a dozen cups all day long. It is similar to the difference of having one beer on Friday night and having several beers every single night of the week. Big difference there, just ask your doctor.

All things in moderation

For a while I could honestly say that I was satisfied that I found a way to cut back on my coffee consumption, even though I didn’t give it up completely. All things in moderation, that’s my motto. That is also what the Harvard Medical School website says about coffee. It has some health benefits, if we don’t overdo it: “Moderation is the key… it is best to avoid heavy consumption.”

Remember that although there are some medical studies that tell us how a cup of coffee or a glass of red wine may actually be good for you, the studies do not say a whole pot of coffee or a whole bottle of red wine.

I would joke about my habit, saying “If you are one of the fine folks who has completely given up all caffeine, I salute you, and in your honor I will drink a cup of coffee as a toast to your willpower, heh heh.”

Yet my health problems related to adrenal fatigue did not clear up; they improved but not completely. The daily jolt to my system was not allowing them to rest and repair. My doctors were not amused.

The Substitute

The thing that worked when giving up cola soda was to find a substitute. In that case it was lemon flavored sparkling water. Now I needed a good substitute for my caffeinated coffee. When I asked the health experts about just drinking decaf coffee they said it still had traces of caffeine in it so don’t do it.

Later on I realized that in reality, that is a silly “perfectionist” attitude. There is only a tiny, negligible amount of caffeine in decaffeinated coffee. When I drank decaf my health problems cleared up and I slept great and it was all good.

There are many health perfectionists who are going to tell you that you have to live your life the exact same way that they do. Yet you can do your own research and find out what actually works best for you.

The Benefits of Coffee

What is even more interesting is I read about a very large study of 400,000 people that found, “Coffee drinkers are a little more likely to live longer. Regular or decaf doesn’t matter.”

Hey if regular or decaf doesn’t matter then that was good news and music to my ears.

My liver and kidneys thank me. A doctor informed me that ingesting lots of caffeine shuts down your liver and switches your body from a parasympathetic state to a sympathetic state. This puts you in a “fight or flight” mode and sends your blood away from the liver and kidney and towards the adrenal glands and the muscles so you can run and fight and such. So your liver and kidney slow wayyyyy dowwwnnnnn and do not do their job of filtering and detoxing your body. If you ingest caffeine all day long then your organs can only do their job while you are sleeping at night. This can lead to all kinds of “mysterious” health problems.

The substitute that worked was pretty obvious, I just drank my favorite coffee but got the decaf version. Yes some health perfectionists scolded me for that. I guess they have zero tolerance for any trace of caffeine. That’s fine for them, but I’m not a perfectionist and if the coffee is 95% caffeine-free that seems to be good enough for my body and my health. Your mileage may vary.

What Worked?

If you are trying to give up any habit, whatever it is, try these methods and see if you don’t at least cut way back on the habit. Sometimes giving up even a percentage can work wonders. Soon you may cut out 100% like I did with soda pop/corn syrup, or 95% like I did with caffeine.

1. Find your motivation, your big reason why, your driving force that will make you want this enough to stick with it and follow through to victory.

2. Slowly reduce the amount each day that you spend being involved with this habit, and try to gradually wean yourself completely off of it.

3. Find a substitute, a similar habit that can fill the void left by the old familiar one.

4. Try living with half of the regular habit and half of the substitute for a while if that helps.

5. Get a calendar and mark off every day that you stay true to your goal. Seeing all of those days checked off can help motivate you to do one more day.

6. Give it time, hang in there, and see if the substitute can eventually become the new habit, replacing the old one.

7. One day try going cold turkey, being 100% habit free, even if just for one day. This gives your mind and emotions proof that you can really do it if you want to.

8. Take inventory of yourself. Are you benefiting from this? Are you better off? Is it worth it to you? Are you enjoying life more or less now?

9. Eventually enjoy complete victory, or a reasonable compromise. If you even just cut way back on the issue, you are far better off than if you had never tried at all.

10. Begin again. If you only reached 75% of your goal, or something similar, live with that for a while and then try again to overcome the last, stubborn leftover part of the habit.

What I learned

Somewhere between the two extremes of drinking coffee all day long and drinking no coffee whatsoever was my own happy sweet spot of just enjoying one really good cup of decaf per day and “not sweating the small stuff.”

This happy medium could apply to so many things we say and do. We often think everything must be all or nothing, pass or fail, 100% or zero, rich or poor, for or against, in or out, up or down, left or right, black or white… when in reality most things exist somewhere in a very large area that is a variable percentage of the distance between two extremes. Much like the way life is lived between a laugh and a tear.

What brings you joy? This website is about having more joy in life, not less, so if something brings you joy, then it might not be so “bad for you” after all… in moderation.

Coffee brings me joy and now I have found a way to enjoy it by using a high quality decaf coffee. I was able to manage and minimize my caffeine habit so it is not causing me harm. Hooray for decaf.

I was also very happy that I managed to quit drinking soda pop.  I did it using these same techniques I illustrate here. Give them a try and see if they work for you on your particular goal.

To reiterate, here is what it took for me to succeed on the second effort.

1. More than one try. If at first you don’t succeed, try again.
2. A really good reason. In my case, a medical report motivated me to do it.
3. It helps to have a substitute. I found a great tasting decaf that I really like.

Best wishes to you in all of your efforts, goals and challenges, and have a wonderful day.