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.

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