It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.
My friends like to joke that I have a second home at Philz Coffee in San Francisco. Three or four days a week, they would see an automated social media check-in at Philz as a result of me connecting to their wi-fi.
There’s a reason I go there so often: I’m happiest when lounging in coffee shops. A quote from my post on tracking my happiness for 30 days says it all:
The top three activities that make me happy: conversation, listening to music, and working on passion projects … considering that people typically do these activities in coffee shops, this may help explain [why I’m at my happiest there].
As you can see, coffee shops are a winner in my book.
Unfortunately, drinking coffee was also sabotaging me. I’ve been struggling with certain health-related goals for years, and deep down I knew coffee was to blame (more on this shortly). But like so many others, the thought of giving up coffee horrified me.
Three months ago, I put my foot down and finally took coffee out of my life. It sucked, big time, but it was absolutely worth it. And that’s what this post is about: giving up things you really enjoy because they’re holding you back.
Is it painful to give up things you love? Yes. Is it worth the struggle in order to continue growing as a person? Hell yes. And the rest of this post explains why.
The Caffeine Struggle
For almost a decade, I’ve been struggling with energy problems. I would get afternoon crashes so bad, I’d often need to lie down wherever I could find a private space at work to try and sleep off the exhaustion. My sleep was consistently poor. My skin would break out at the slightest hint of stress. I was constantly bloated from poor digestion despite a relatively healthy diet.
Guess what I did to cope? If you guessed drinking more coffee and denying the existence of a problem, you’d be absolutely correct. And I continued to rationalize the extreme energy crashes as a regular ol’ coffee crash. And hey, lots of people get post-coffee crashes, so this must be normal.
I started drinking even more coffee in an attempt to compensate for my increasingly low energy levels. I also started taking melatonin and other sleep aids to force myself to sleep in the face of an increasing caffeine load. Bravo Jon, bravo.
In my quest for health these past few years, I removed a lot of bad habits, started meditating, and vastly improved my diet. But I loved coffee so much, I continued to ignore its deleterious effects. Four months ago, fed up with my energy problems, I had a realization that changed my entire approach: Because we clutch on to certain things so tightly, we’re often willing to overlook the harm these things are inflicting on us.When we clutch on to something so tightly, we're willing to overlook the harm it inflicts. Click To Tweet
Bingo. The next step in my journey was to break the coffee habit, and I knew exactly how to proceed.
What Gets Measured Gets Managed
In the past I would simply do Google searches related to my issue and buy some health supplements that I hoped would make me feel better. I’d also conveniently ignore articles that might suggest something too difficult (e.g. give up all sources of caffeine).
This time around, I knew I needed real data to explain what the hell was going on in my body. If I had proof that this wasn’t psychosomatic, I figured, it would make it easier to rationalize giving up something I loved so dearly.
I started with my doctor. The good news: all of the standard tests taken at my yearly checkup came back flawless. The bad news: this provided no explanation for why I felt so awful. This route took me nowhere.
Thankfully, through a recommendation from a health-conscious colleague at Google, I found Chris Kelly, a functional health practitioner who set me up with a series of lab tests to get more data. The test results were highly informative and pointed out issues that needed my attention.
Since this post has been using coffee, caffeine, and low energy as a case study, let’s focus on my cortisol test. Cortisol helps you feel alert and focused (caffeine is a known cortisol booster, FYI). Take a look at my results below:
The red line with triangles shows the high end of a normal result. The green line with diamonds shows the low end. My line is orange with Xs.
As you can see, my mornings start out fairly normal, energy-wise. But guess where I was from noon ’till nighttime? Rock bottom. Way below normal. It’s as if my body was ready to sleep the entire second half of the day, and that’s exactly what it felt like.
Finally, real data! As suspected, something wasn’t right. I was given a treatment protocol that required some heavy-duty lifestyle changes. And that’s when the coffee went bye-bye.
Giving Up What I Love
I was placed on a much cleaner diet (for those curious, the AIP rotation diet), tasked with the challenge of improving my sleep, and given some light supplementation to support my adrenals while I worked on everything else.
Unfortunately, this diet and lifestyle regimen required me to give up what I loved so dearly: coffee.
Not just coffee, though, my favorite foods were gone too. Furthermore, this diet was so strict, it required that I cook almost all of my own food. This meant deprioritizing other goals to focus on learning how to cook without burning my apartment down.
As you can probably imagine, the beginning was rough. But I began. And I stuck with it.
Was It Worth It?
As of this blog post, I’m four months in, and my energy levels are undoubtedly higher. In fact, I anticipate even stronger gains because every subsequent week has yielded better results. So yes, this has absolutely been worth it.
This whole process has reminded me of a quote from the famous Stoic, Seneca:
It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.
In the beginning, I considered giving up; I felt worse than ever due to caffeine withdrawal, losing my favorite foods, and so on. But it got better. And better. And better.
My progress reminds me of the Gartner technology hype cycle, which describes how technology is perceived and adopted over time, as seen below:
The peak of inflated expectations came when I finally got actionable data and a treatment plan to work with. But as soon as I had to give up coffee, I quickly slid into the trough of disillusionment. Climbing up into the slope of enlightenment felt pretty awesome; I’m still somewhere in the middle of that slope. I’m excited to see what the plateau of productivity feels like.
And who knows, perhaps in 2-3 months, I’ll be able to reintroduce coffee in smaller quantities without ill effect. I don’t intend for this to be a permanent removal unless absolutely necessary.
This diet and lifestyle challenge has been one of the toughest things I’ve tackled in my life to date, and I’ll write a much deeper blog post about it in the coming weeks. But today’s focus is this: When you find yourself stuck, temporarily letting go of certain things you love may be what you need to keep growing.
For me, it was coffee. For you, it may be your favorite TV shows, your favorite fast food meal, that boozy brunch that eats up your whole Saturday, relationships that are no longer mutually beneficial, an online shopping habit, or those few beers you kick back every night.Don't give your favorite things a free pass just because you have an attachment to them. Click To Tweet
Whether it’s improving your health, starting a business on nights and weekends, improving your grades, or simply being a good parent or spouse, it’s worth taking a critical look at your favorite activities if you feel yourself slowing down or plateauing. The key takeaway: don’t give your favorite things a free pass just because you have an attachment to them.