Day 25: Alcohol and Productivity

Today’s post is one that is close to my own heart because it is one of the key areas where I saw immediate improvement when I reduced my drinking – getting things done, both in my personal and professional life. I continue to see improvements on this aspect of my life when I take months off, as I am doing now, with you in the MOB*.

This is another area of life where a post-MOB plan to limit and control how much you drink in future might reap longer-term rewards.

Earlier this year, a study was reported quite widely with headlines stating that alcohol had no effect on productivity in the workplace, but sleep did.  

This research found that people who had 6 hours or less sleep were a lot less productive than those who got more zzzs. The amount of alcohol, cigarettes or food these people had consumed apparently made no difference to their work rate, although mental health and financial worries also reduced productivity.

This was a large study – over twenty thousand employees took part – but it does have limitations. For a start it relied on self-reporting, so participants might have tried to present a more positive account of both their productivity and their alcohol consumption than was really the case. Additionally, the people who took part were working for companies taking part in ‘Britain’s Healthiest Company’ competition, so were perhaps more healthy in general.

Personally, I don’t think this presents a clear picture of the complex relationship between alcohol and productivity.

Alcohol affects sleep – so therefore will influence productivity

Even the above mentioned study found that a lack of sleep affects productivity. And drinking even a few drinks in the evening can affect the quality of your sleep by interfering with your normal sleep cycle.

If you go to bed after drinking you are more likely to slip into the deep sleep phase straight away, missing out on the rapid eye movement (REM) phase that usually comes first. But when the alcohol starts to wear off you will be roused from deep sleep, move into REM sleep, and from there it is easier to wake up.

What’s more, a normal refreshing night’s sleep will contain about six or seven REM cycles, but we often only get two of these cycles if we’ve been drinking – which will make us feel exhausted when we wake up.

Some people say they drink to get to sleep and might nod off faster when they go to bed – but they still suffer from sleep disturbance –  waking early or frequently during the night.

Aside from this, we need to urinate more during the night both from the volume of the alcohol itself and because its diuretic qualities causes our bodies to expel more water.

Generally, then alcohol can disrupt our sleep and if you are unable to ‘sleep it off’ (e.g., you have a job, kids, college etc to get up for) you are quite likely going to get less than the 6 hours you need to be more productive the next day.

Alcohol creates hangovers – the spoiler of all the plans

In the past I have ruined what would have been perfectly lovely brunches or days out because I had a hangover. I have a personal rule that I am not a person who cancels arrangements, so I would always drag my bones to commitments however rough I felt. But would also be really cross with myself for spoiling things for myself and other people. Similarly, I would barely (if at all) scratch the surface of my to-do list, whether that included personal, work, or study activities.

You might think of a hangover as a mini-withdrawal from alcohol. Alcohol is a mind-altering intoxicant, and intoxicating substances cause changes in our brains.  To compensate for these changes, our brain adapts. Remove the substance, and then the opposite reaction occurs causing withdrawal symptoms.

As we mentioned on Day 11, alcohol can both affect our levels of dopamine – a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure, and GABA, a neurotransmitter that causes relaxation and a sense of calm. The opposite of these, when the brain is readjusting during a hangover, will include low mood and anxiety. As the brain adjusts its chemistry from the night before our cognitive function is also impaired in the area of the brain (frontal cortex) that is in charge of doing more complicated things like making decisions or thinking about the future.

As Dr. George Koob, an expert on alcohol and stress, and Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has said, “there’s no free ride in your brain reward system”.

Many of the symptoms of a hangover are the opposite of the effects of being drunk.

So if your present self says “yes” to alcohol, it is also making sure that your tomorrow self will experience some or all of the following:

  • Anxiety or low mood (versus the positive mood from being drunk)
  • Body and muscle aches (versus the pain-relieving effects of alcohol)
  • Stomach upset and feeling sick or dizzy
  • Fatigue and lethargy (versus the buzz and energy that can come from drinking)
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Being irritable
  • Lack of oomph. (this last one’s mine!)

Experiencing any of these symptoms will also affect how much you get done, or even whether you do any of the things you planned to do. If you are angry or annoyed with your yesterday self for what it has inflicted upon your today self, you are in an even worse frame of mind to get anything done.

Longer-term effects of alcohol

Long-term regular heavy drinking can also cause issues that will impair your productivity and thinking process more significantly, and you won’t always bounce back like you will a hangover, although by cutting back and having days off, or stopping completely you will begin to see improvements.

Because it limits how your blood cells function, alcohol can cause anemia – which leads to fatigue and chronic tiredness. Regular use also affect memory, coordination and slows down your reaction times. All of which will affect your productivity on any task – from doing the washing up, to building a website.

In my work with chronic drinkers and people with physical alcohol dependency, I also see alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) that is caused by several factors, one of which is a deficit of B12 and thiamine which are important for brain and nerve health.

The Virtuous Circle

Almost everyone I have worked with who has sought help to cut down and have more days off alcohol, or take a complete booze break, has said that they feel more motivated, have more energy, can ‘get going’ earlier in the day, and get more done at work or with the family, when they have not been drinking the day before. They also feel less stressed at work or anxious about work, or feel that they can cope better with their family, kids or other pressures.

Starting a day feeling low, exhausted, demotivated, making mistakes, being irritable and generally feeling like we are just surviving rather than being productive, is much more likely to make that day really stressful – and for most of us that means that we are more likely to crave a drink come evening.

Cutting down or stopping drinking can create a ‘virtuous circle’: If we get more done and feel more in control at work, college, or with our family during the day, and are in a better mood and have more energy because we have not been drinking, then that day will be less stressful, we will feel happier with ourselves, and will therefore not feel as much like we want/need a drink at the end of that day.

Book Recommendation
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I love this book and use many of the techniques in it to help me feel less stressed and organise my time to get all my different personal development and work projects done. The main thing this book has taught me is how to organise my thoughts and get them ‘out of my head’ so that I can clear my mind and focus on doing what I need to do. It has also helped me work out what things are important to focus on, and what things I need to let go. I now feel a lot less guilty or anxious about what I’m “not doing”. There are loads of great tips and techniques in here.

Today we also have a special treat for you – a good friend of Club Soda, Julian shares a story about an important milestone on his journey.

Coming up

Tomorrow, we reward ourselves.

One Response to “Day 25: Alcohol and Productivity

  • Lucy Devine
    3 years ago

    Hello – thank you for this. Of all the amazing things about giving up drinking (although I must admit I have only done three weeks so far), being a blazing ball of energy is the best!

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