A close look at the science of stimulation during the workday.

 

We have always lived in a drug culture, and the drugs we find acceptable are often a reflection of the kinds of work we have to do when we're not dosed out. For more than a century, coffee has been the work-time drug of choice.

In World War I, the US government sent instant coffee to its troops in the trenches, and as labor unions grew in power throughout the 20th century, the coffee break became a negotiating point, culminating with the threat of 74,000 Chrysler factory workers to walk off the jobunless management gave them a 12-minute coffee break. 

 

We are working in stranger ways today, pursuing increasingly weird business ventures, and we should have work drugs that reflect those changing conditions.

 

In recent years, coffee has become an expected perk in most workplaces, and upper-class startups are proud to splurge on single-origin, temperature-controlled, single-drip swankery for their discerning crews of thinkfluencers and imagineers. Yet, there's reason to believe this old tradition of caffeine-jumping your nervous system every morning is becoming less effective in the 21st-century workplace.

In a recent New Yorker story, Maria Konnikova argues that for all the benefits caffeine had in the industrial age, when productivity and efficiency were the primary virtues, the drug has significant drawbacks on creative thought, which is an increasingly important virtue in the 21st century.

Specifically, caffeine's ability to heighten focus is a major drawback on the ability to connect seemingly disparate ideas. Caffeine also makes it harder to fall asleep and lowers the quality of that sleep, which, Konnikova notes, has been linked to decreases in "emotional intelligence, constructive thinking, and the ability to cope with stress."

It seems like we are on the cusp of needing a new workplace drug as our conception of labor shifts from factory line to laptop-driven loftspace conversions.

But what should it be exactly?

Some have turned to dextroamphetamines like Adderall and Vyvanse to supplant caffeine. While these drugs heighten one’s alertness and focus, making the user feel more intelligent and creative, they don't actually enhance mental flexibility. A better approach may come from the opposite direction, pursuing mild doses of psychotropics instead of stimulants and amphetamines.

The economic godfather of the 21st century, Steve Jobs, spoke openly about his experiences doing LSD, and teased Microsoft about how much better a company it would have been if Bill Gates had spent a little time on acid. Before the drug was outlawed in the mid-1960s, research into its effects was beginning to flourish. Oscar Janiger, a psychiatrist and researcher at UC Irvine, co-authored one of the most famous studies on the effects of LSD. He linked it to enhanced creativity in test subjects with artistic inclinations, making them more willing to experiment, take risks, and use more of the materials available to them than when not using the drug.

 

Other studies have shown LSD can have a powerful effect in treating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder by freeing individuals from hyper-fixation and encouraging a more open and calming flow of thought. A 2006 study at Johns Hopkins administered psylocybin and ritalin to test subjects who'd never had any drug experiences. Those who took psylocibin first reported dramatic benefits from the experience, with almost 80 percent of subjects reporting the experience had greatly increased their well-being and life satisfaction in the months since the experience.

These sound like precisely the desired outcomes sought by companies that lavish their employees in catered lunches and artisanal coffees. "We try and facilitate an environment where employees feel really comfortable. It pays off in terms of the work that is done and the results that happen," said Andrew Burke, Squarespace's head of talent development, to The New York Times.

As open work formats like hackathons and idea scrums have come to play increasingly important roles in modern entrepreneurialism, why not embrace the idea that these increasingly esoteric and experimental ways of making money could benefit from drugs that promote open thinking rather than narrow focus?

Instead of work-from-home days, why not have dropout days? Or in the same way one fights the fatigue of monotonous work with a jolt to the nervous system, why not deal with creative blocks by a few micrograms of LSD in your green tea? Not enough to launch a full-on trip to the antipodes necessarily, but just enough to lubricate the creaking gears of a brain that has worked a project into a seeming dead end.

While coffee consumption has never been more popular than it is today, it seems the working conditions that made it such an appealing drug in the first place are slowly declining. We are working in stranger ways today, pursuing increasingly weird business ventures, and we should have work drugs that reflect those changing conditions.

The longstanding divide between legal and illegal drugs makes it feel heretical to imagine dropping acid in the break room on a Tuesday afternoon, but even coffee has had its moments of prohibition, from its attempted banning in Mecca in the 16th century to Gustav III's experimental outlawing of coffee in 18th-century Sweden, a country that today has the highest rate of coffee consumption per capita in the world.

The present prohibition of psychoactive drugs may well come to seem like a historical aberration once bosses see how beneficial they can be to worker performance, productivity, and growth. We are already living in a culture where workers regularly dose themselves in order to make work more tolerable; simply changing the drug won't do anything to fundamentally undo that structure.

So, if we must report every morning to the office, let us at least settle for ourselves what chemical accompaniment we chose to take with our daily dose of toil. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.