Studying With Coffee: How to Use It Productively for Your Studies

Do you love coffee?

I imagine I see many heads nodding now.

Suffice to say, my appreciation for coffee has increased throughout the years, especially since I discovered that good coffee, properly made, shouldn’t have a hint of bitterness in it. Yes, without addition of sugar! I’ve been studying with coffee ever since.

What’s most interesting, however, is the endless debates about coffee’s effectiveness in boosting productivity. With studies published by researchers at John Hopkins University stating that coffee may aid memory, you must be jumping for joy at the chance of having more caffeine in your system.

As a coffee fan, I’ve experimented with the frequency and dosage of caffeine, monitoring its effect on my focus and productivity on my work and CFA Program studies.

Here’s my 3 step plan to master caffeine and make it a force for productivity.

Phase 1 – Eliminate coffee completely for 1 month


Yes, you heard me.

Counterintuitive? Yes.

And yes, it will be the longest 1 month in your life, especially the first 2 weeks.

For this to work best, don’t trust yourself – please have a trusted friend, partner or study buddy to watch over you, because you’ll see a side of yourself you’ve never seen before (see above picture, that’s how my friend described me during this phase).

For someone that consumes (only) one cup of double shot flat white or cappuccino on a daily basis, I struggled the first week and begged, negotiated and even tried to bargain for the right to have a cup of coffee. Like an addict (I didn’t realize how dependent I was on coffee then), the excuses were numerous:

  • “Oh, I can’t focus or do anything”
  • “I feel sleepy, I need a cup of coffee to wake up”
  • “I feel like something warm to drink”
  • “I promise I won’t annoy you if I can have a cuppa”, and finally
  • “I just want to have a cup of coffee, GIVE ME ONE NOW”

My friend, being a strict, solid observer and trusted Coffee Police Officer, just said these in response:

  • “Yes, you can”
  • “Green tea works too”
  • “Sure, anything but coffee is fine”
  • “No you can’t have a cup of coffee”
  • “N-O means NO”

All in all, I started to replace green tea for my daily warm drink and started to give up fighting about it. If you really want to eliminate caffeine entirely, you can try peppermint tea – it’s better for your teeth as well!

​As much as I hate to admit it, it is partly psychological. I never needed coffee to do work, wake up or just get going – I’m just dependent on it to get things moving as it became a habit.

Phase 2 – Have coffee, but only once a week


Now that you’ve been awesome and disciplined within the first month, you deserve a reward, yay! Choose your favorite day of the week, and allow yourself a nice cup of coffee – yes just one cup. Tactically, it may be best to do that on weekends where you’re in the middle of CFA exam revision.

This is an important step, as it will form your habit going forward (and save lots of money too). With only 1 cup a week, you grow to appreciate and be picky with what you drink, and savor every last drip of it. Now that you’re no longer dependent on coffee, the relationship changes to something better – you drink it slowly, starting to notice its taste and smell, recognising it as a little reward for the hard work you’ve ahead.

studying with coffee

Most importantly, you will start to notice a stronger effect that coffee has on your focus and productivity. It’s like when you’d your first cup years ago: you feel energetic, keen to get things done and can focus for a longer time. You no longer feel sluggish without coffee, but having a little once a week does give you that boost when you need it. If you feel jittery, it means your weekly dosage is too much and you should tone it down till you achieve a comfortable zen-like focus in your studies – some call it ‘being in-the-zone’.

It’s pretty empowering, to know that you’ve conquered your caffeine addiction. You will now realize that this is what people mean when they say that coffee is a double-edged sword, and why all those studies on coffee have been inconclusive all these while. There is an optimal level of coffee (or caffeine) consumption to maximize productivity, i.e. there is diminishing marginal returns to coffee consumption.

Phase 3 (optional) – Use coffee sporadically


This is an optional phase, left only to the most disciplined of you lot out there, simply because there is a danger that you may slip and go back to having coffee once a day where it’s effect is nullified and you’re back to the grumpy, needy caffeine monster you once were.

However, if you’re up for the challenge, and confident that you can be honest with yourself and continuously monitor your coffee consumption to avoid Step 1 again, read on. Doing Phase 3 correctly can further boost your Phase 2 productivity.

Borrowing from HIIT concepts in fitness training, this means that you could be more creative on the schedule of consumption:

  • Still limit yourself to 1 cup of coffee per week, but jumble up which day you drink it. This prevents your body getting used to having it on a particular day, and let’s you selectively choose which day to utilise your ‘special boost’ when you really need it. By keeping things fresh and not make it a routine, you have more flexibility in making sure your body doesn’t get used to caffeine (again) and keep it’s magical properties working for you.
  • For experts in self discipline (I doubt we all are), there’s another higher risk (but higher reward) strategy of what I call “1+1”, where you allow yourself the ’emergency’ 1 extra cup a week, only when you need it. As you probably can see, this can dangerously slip into your old routine of having an ’emergency’ cup everyday, but I hope the fear of Step 1 (when implemented by your Coffee Police friend) will deter you from it. It works best if you alternate not only the days you consume coffee (as mentioned in the previous point), but also the frequency – i.e. you don’t always consume 2 a week. One more thing, let’s keep 1+1 as a maximum, it’s not an arithmetic progression!

The goal of this phase, if you choose to use it, is to practice self-awareness and monitor how coffee consumption affects your focus and effectiveness in your work. If done correctly and honestly, you will learn not just to enjoy coffee, but to use it effectively as a weapon to help focus and aid memory in your quest to becoming a CFA charterholder.

What is your experience with coffee during studying? Are you up for trying this challenge and see if it works for you too? I would love to hear your thought and comments below! 


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