Insights from a Failed Sugar Coma

Insights from a Failed Sugar Coma

Sugar Crash Me For the past few weeks I’ve been monitoring my energy levels. The goal: to correlate (or not) my most productive days with the energy brought by good waking and eating habits. It took a failed experiment to experience a sugar crash to turn me onto the possibility that it’s my own belief that is the puppetmaster pulling my productivity string.

Crafting a Routine

I’d gotten the ritual down to this template:

  • In bed by 10PM
  • Out of bed at 6AM
  • Avoid computers
  • Eat breakfast by 630AM
  • Get out of the House by 7AM
  • Avoid email, and work on first project for 15min to 2 hours.
  • Check email, Scan project lists
  • Pick 2 more things to do for the day
  • Wrap it up by 5PM

This worked really well for me, especially when combined with constant journaling; it works for me because writing helps focus my thoughts and provides a short-term memory boost. This is possible because I can type almost as fast as I think, without having to look at the keyboard.

Despite this success in process improvement, I kept experiencing a continuing fatigue while working that didn’t go away. Although regularization of the sleeping pattern and a protein-rich breakfast had stabilized my working day, I was still not pushing along consistently. I often would fall asleep around 3PM and slept for an hour or more, which made it that much more difficult to stick to the sleeping schedule.

The whole schedule finally collapsed a couple weeks ago. Rather than just hop back on, I have instead been documenting what it was like to be back in the doldrums of unscheduled time. And, I have to admit, my internal motivation was not up to the task of maintaining sustained effort.

Analysis I

I contemplate this latest setback, and came up with a set of working assumptions:

  • While I have the elements of a good daytime productivity methodology, I still lacked the means to link “tasks today” with “long term goals”. And there are a LOT of them, enough for a small army of Daves. The solution that came to mind: I need to develop software to manage it. There is nothing on the market that will keep the web of projects and interconnecting ideas clear enough in my mind to actually trigger desire. Video game systems are capable of doing it, and so I must combine my knowledge of that style of interactivity with my obsession for task organization and management.
  • In the meantime, I would continue to document my daily activity relentlessly. The process has given me tremendous insight into how I’m feeling from day to day. unexpected side effects have been an increase in confidence in my own path, and a corresponding outgoingness. By documenting my own chain of existence, I have somehow legitimized it in my mind.

I thought this was a good plan: forward-looking, but grounded in process that I know are low-cost and productive today. But there’s a problem: my own lack of consistency. While I felt I was on the way to getting it together, I suspected that improved diet and exercise were the next frontier. Before I could put that into effect, my impulsive nature threw me down a different road.

Dodging the Opportunity Cost of Ice Cream

Going to sleep around 10PM is really tough for me, so I lately I’ve tried reading books I’d been putting off before I go to bed. One of them was David Linden’s The Accidental Mind, which goes into considerable detail about how our brains are NOT the product of perfected design, but are instead a shaky stack of newer systems built on top of older ones, all constructed out of cells called neurons. Neurons use electricity to move signals around, but are chemically-triggered. The chemical energy to operate these triggers are provided by glucose, which is a simple sugar that the brain consumes for its energy needs. This had been on my mind when I tried to think my way out of an ice cream coma. Admittedly, it was a silly thought: that by thinking really fast, I might burn up all that sugar I’d just ingested. But amazingly, it seemed to work! And id had been exhilarating trying to think as fast as I could, processing as many ideas and senses as I could. When trying to duplicate the feat later, I fell quite short of my earlier high, and I began to wonder if my brain was actually fuel starved. Now, I’ve been avoiding sugar and “bad carbohydrates” as responsibly as possible. As I am at risk for diabetes, it seems like the prudent thing to do. That brought me to the following dilemma:
  • If I was able to use that sugar one day to think very fast and productively, and failed to repeat the achievement later in the week, it’s possible that my brain has been energy-starved. This may be the cause of the fuzzy-headedness I often feel.

  • On the other hand, my body was highly-sensitive to eating too much sugar. Within minutes of finishing a meal, I would often fall asleep on the couch, which messes up my precious sleeping schedule. So eating less sugar contributes to an even wakefulness.

When faced with two variables like this, the first thought is of course to find where both variables contribute the maximum well-being: is there an idea amount of sugar, eaten at the right times, to maximize brain horsepower and minimize sugar crashes? That entails gaining a sense of how the system responds to different levels of input; after that, I might be able to increase my tolerance to sugar by losing weight and exercising more. For the first time, I had a direct link to mental clarity and exercise that I was willing to follow. Low brain function was KILLING my productivity. The Experiment

The Experiment

So that evening, I went to the supermarket and bought a liter of Coca Cola, a box of 12 frosted and be-sprinkled sugar cookies, and a whole bag of Smarties® candies (the appropriateness of my choice was not lost on me). I wanted to know just how long it took for sugar to knock me on my ass, and what quantity was necessary. So, I made sure I got a good nights sleep, and then on an empty stomach started a day of sugar ingestion, which I documented minute by minute until I lost consciousness. But instead…I didn’t crash. I remained perfectly alert, with the exception of some headaches. In fact, it seemed that if I could withstand the first 45 minutes of eating the sugary stuff, I was just fine. I was also working on some website stuff for a client at the same time, so perhaps the sugar was actually being used by my brain somehow and not “shocking” my system into helplessness. Hm. The next morning, I saw that commenter “jb” had pointed out that sugar crashes are a myth, which poked a huge hole in my underlying understanding of the processes at work in my body. Apparently, a healthy body can process sugar just fine. The only people who have problems with it are diabetic, and the symptoms they describe are not like the arch-typical sugar crash at all. The data wasn’t adding up.

Analysis II: A Testing of Belief

On the one hand my personal experience in the past 10+ years with sugary foods has been that they make me sleepy, fuzz out my brain, and generally contribute to the malaise that drags down my productivity. My assumption was that I had to watch what I ate very carefully to maintain peak mental clarity. Without that, my desire to build a satisfying array of financially-nourishing productivity products would never come to fruition. And yet, yesterday I’d eaten amounts of sugar I have avoided for years, and didn’t suffer too badly from it. Perhaps I hadn’t pushed hard enough, so I ate candy all day and remarkably, my mind remained clear. While I did fall asleep on the couch, it was because my mind had stopped working while I was there. Was it possible that the main contributor to my mental fatigue was due to a kind of reverse-placebo effect? JB, through an email followup, had observed that it was amazing how what we believe tends to set our reality. While I didn’t regard myself as susceptible to that kind of correlation error, mistakenly assigning cause to the wrong thing, I had to admit that in this case I might actually be fooling myself. If I wasn’t having mythical sugar crashes or insulin-related disaster, what the heck was making me get so damn sleepy all the time?
  • Was it low dopamine? I’d been reading about that in Daniel Pink’s book Drive during my bedtime reading. I’d been freaked out by how low-dopamine sensitivity correlated with ADHD, creativity, and Parkinson’s Disease.

  • Was it depression? Symptoms of depression include drowsiness and fatigue. I admittedly had been very frustrated by my lack of progress in my grand schemes. While I’ve come to accept that doing meaningful foundational work takes a lot of time, it didn’t mean I liked it. Combine that with the ongoing rollercoaster that is the freelancer’s lot in life, and you have a recipe for feeling like crap.

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p>Either theory was plausible, but one thing didn’t seem to fit: during my two sugar days, I’d actually felt pretty good. I had even taken apart the carburetor I’d been ignoring for the past two years for a good cleaning. All day, I hadn’t experienced any of the headaches that usually accompany the doing of unpleasant tasks. Was that the mythical sugar high? What else could account for the mental clarity I’d felt for those two days?

There was just one thing I could think of: my mind had been completely engaged. It was only when my mind was not engaged (sitting on the couch, doing nothing) or facing a task that it found boring or inconvenient that I experienced headaches or sleepiness.

The Power of Positive Thinking, Revisited

In other words: my attitude toward my work was entirely responsible for the litany of aches and pains that “prevented” me from thinking clearly or starting projects. YEARS of procrastination suddenly snapped into sharp focus. My own brain was undermining me again, like a toady manager who kisses ass to the bosses upstairs while blaming all the problems on his team. WTF!

I expressed the thought more positively on August 26 in the Wave with Colleen (and yes, we are still using Google Wave in 2011):

[…] some of the big inputs I thought were things I needed to battle–social time, avoiding sugars, getting sleep–are actually not significant in the light of feeling like I’m in control, confident to be what I am, and (this is the newest) having a great attitude toward boring work.

This is a major revelation. In the days since then, I’ve been monitoring not what I’ve been doing, but my attitude toward the work. Reframed in the context of attitude, the little rituals that I have been coming up with–copious journaling on the new process blogs, sharing my design work as much as possible–have been entirely about redirecting what I would ordinarily regard as onerous into something that I regard as meaningful. For example, when I am not particularly excited about learning how to write a piece of code using PHP, writing about HOW I’m learning the stuff transforms the chore into an act of content creation, which is something I do love doing.

And having recognized that it is bad attitude that is generating all that resistance, I can actually skip some of the writing and stop the negativity before it starts.

Looking Forward

Learning to develop a great attitude is, I believe, at the very heart of accomplishing what we want in the manner that will bring us the greatest satisfaction. It is also the missing guideline that binds the HOW, WHAT and WHY of what I do.

While this is not a new insight by any means–there have been plenty of studies that show how high morale in the workplace leads to increased productivity, and the whole notion of the “power of positive thinking” is a well-worn trope–the concept of designing systems to maintain and encourage “great attitudes” is a MASTER PRINCIPLE. It neatly bundles notions I have about my personal philosophy, psychology, and the nature faith into an interesting little package that I can work with.

18 Comments

  1. bStormhands 11 years ago

    I admire your dedication to journaling and how you are using it. I write a lot but not about what I am currently doing. I see it isn’t wasteful but it still seems odd to write that I’m writing so much.

  2. RF 11 years ago

    It sounds like you have come up with a strategy that might work for you. I would just suggest you keep in mind the possibility of a physiological issue. My son, whose work is similar to yours, struggles with the same sugar and sleep issues you have described. His doctor ran some tests and found that my son processes carbohydrates unusually quickly which leads to sugar crashes, particularly when he eats low quality carbs. My son has found it helps to eat small amounts of food regularly throughout the day, and to avoid large meals and low quality carbs when he needs to get work done.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 11 years ago

      Hm, that’s fascinating! I do need to get to the doctor for a physical, and will bring it up.

  3. Yvonne Root 11 years ago

    Dave, While you are correct that your conclusions concerning attitude are not new you also seem to be at an intersection dealing with the sustainability of the “proper” attitude. Successes (even small ones) seem to be a way to capture the good attitudes. So, we try to set ourselves up to have attitude enhancing successes on our personal roller coaster rides.

    That would seem to be a simple matter of wanting the right things as we go along. There are times though in which I find that I’m so far away from the ideal of having a great attitude. And worse than that I don’t even want to want to. Not depression exactly. Just some amount of rebellion perhaps?

    Who knows?

    • Author
      Dave Seah 11 years ago

      Yvonne, your reply triggered the thought that our so-called “search for happiness” is equivalent to being a “rebel without a cause” :)

      One reason that focusing on attitude pleases me is that it gets away from the hunt for the “right things”, which thus-far have been unknowable. And it also gets away from the “reward” approach, which has never been a powerful motivator for me.

      As much of a relativist that I am, I do want to find something that I can believe in, be it a principle, God, or maybe just human nature. I want an answer that is self-contained and universal.

      Having a good attitude seems to straddle both Faith and Psychology. Seen from the perspective of faith, having a good attitude is having faith. From the point of view of psychology (which I admittedly am not very well-versed in), a good attitude seems to cure a host of ills, and it is contagious through the vector of successfully-undertaken action.

      I’m just starting to get my head wrapped around it. I don’t think a good attitude means being happy all the time. I’m actually not sure what it is exactly…there are lot of different facets to consider.

    • Yvonne Root 11 years ago

      You also made me think, in your response, about what having a good attitude is about. In my lifetime I’ve met very few people whom I could put in the two categories of Ladies and Gentlemen. Yet those are the titles or tags I would use to describe people of excellent attitude.

      I won’t go into the Gentlemen category (I don’t know enough to go there.) but I will comment on Ladies. Both my own mother and one of my very dear friends are two women I classify as Ladies. They exhibit traits of honesty, integrity, selflessness, genuine caring about and for others, willingness to face hard times without whining and so on. Yet, neither of them thinks it wrong to cry, to ask for needed help, to admit their errors, to be angry, or to put on the wrong jewelry from time to time. :)

      Although I’m 60 years old I have to admit that when I grow up I want to be just like my Momma. I’m sure that if she is reading this she is telling her large group of friends there in heaven that I’m a wonderful person. (That is another trait that Ladies have. They try to build up others rather than tear others down. )

      My point is that

  4. Gary C 11 years ago

    Interesting experiments for sure. I suspect though there are far too many other variables in play to determine what if any effect a sugarfest will do to you other than hammer the hell out of your pancreas to reduce your blood sugar levels, which is not good.

    One of the larger variables for the motivated post 40 male crowd is examining the real effect of lowered testosterone in our system, which is something real to discuss with your doctor, rather than risk damaging your health. Ideally you would look to do a complete bloodwork assessment to see where your testosterone is at, along with other vital nutrients, including your pH level. There are many other things in between to consider, which includes that those of us in the post 40 crowd are not even able to absorb what we used to for nutrients, the very nutrients that did keep us fueled up all day, so to some degree it can mean that your entire diet needs to be revisited, including supplements, just to absorb what you used to get from crappy food when your younger digestive system was more agile.

    Post 40, many things surface that we long took for granted, not the end of the world, but to be able to see our successes through we are immediately handicapping our success/productivity probabilities if the engine isn’t running right to begin with. We need more regular maintnenance post 40, thats just how it is….

    • Author
      Dave Seah 11 years ago

      A useful perspective to inject, Gary! Thanks for suggestion of getting a complete blood analysis done. I probably would have just gone in for the quickie oil-change version of a physical!

      I think the primary takeaway from the experiment was that having a good attitude trumps a lot of what thought were limiting factors. For example, “I can not perform at peak mental performance now, because I have eaten a pizza for lunch and my body is crashing.” Apparently, this is not true, though my empirical experience would have suggested otherwise until I tested its power. The cool thing is that I’ve hypothetically eliminated an entire class of excuse from my world view, and gained a powerful ally in moving forward.

      I think I can now focus on the development of one positive attribute, rather than try to concern myself with maintaining dozens of pseudo-performance-affecting variables. Physical health and maintenance IS important, of course, but it’s not the key (I think) to peak mental performance.

  5. Rick Thomas 11 years ago

    I’m not going to say much about the “sugar rush” because you probably know in the long run, working off high doses of sugar is not good for you. What I would recommend, and you eluded to it at the end of your post is engagement. Might I suggest you take a look at “The Power of Full Engagement” by Tony Schwartz and the energy project at http://www.theenergyproject.com. We all work on a circadian rhythm and Tony’s premise is we need to rest and refuel approximately every 90 minutes. It works for me.

  6. Craig Williams 11 years ago

    Perhaps what is throwing you off is all the time you spending documenting and blogging?! for each time you stop and reset your minds focus you alter your own outcome and fail on getting an accurate result….. I expect that you have the ability to compartmentalize your train of thought, put it away, take out another task, then go back but even the best of us who can do that are often overcome by too many compartments. Blogging and documenting add to that clutter of thought as much as it forces you to clarify it.

    I keep your task timer on my desktop so it rings at me every 15 minutes, to force focus away from what I am doing….it helps remind me that I have other things to do at times and not get wrapped up in something else. Reading, blogging, FB clients lives…..I know I could just write a timer that loaded and did the same thing but WHY reinvent the wheel….

  7. Author
    Dave Seah 11 years ago

    Rick:

    Thanks for the link! I like that 90-minute refuel premise! I was thinking it was more like a 45-minute cycle, but I don’t have any data to back that up. Will check it out!

    Craig:

    I’ve wondered the same thing, whether all this documenting and blogging is throwing me off. :)

    What you’re seeing as “all the time” is about 2 hours out of a 16 hour day, or 12.5%. The time varies, of course. And since documentation is part of my thinking process, the cost to switch back and forth is (for me) pretty low; there is a very low clutter factor. Writing as I’m thinking is second nature to me, and the documentation trail as a bookmark to remember where I was last.

    But your point is well taken…the time I am taking to document and blog through things does add some overhead to my process. However, I think the insights I am mining from it are pointing me in directions that will improve my overall productivity. I may not be expressing that well enough…my writing tends to be pretty dense in the first place!

  8. Andy 11 years ago

    Dave, I came to your blog by accident. I was trying to google a simple, visually appealing tool to track one of the tasks my team is working on. I had the same problem of getting sleepy quite easily. Especially after lunch my brain seemed to stop running. I tried two things, which have worked for me so far. 1. I go to gym almost every morning, doing most weight lifting stuff. I believe muscle exercise can generate some stuff in the blood which will counter sleepyness. 2. I try to eat less carbonhydrate, such as bread, rice, especially for lunch. I avoid red meat(beef, pork, lamb) for lunch as well. I still don’t feel great after lunch but it is much better now. If it is the weekend I will take 10 minutes’ nap. (I will have headache if I have a long nap.) I will be quite energized for the rest of day.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 11 years ago

      Alan:

      Your experience with lunchtime sleepiness and your solution of exercise + diet change was exactly what happened to me some ten years ago when I was working in downtown Boston. I had stopped eating carbs, started exercising, and reaped the rewards you described.

      The take-away from my recent experiment with sugar, though, is that good attitude trumps even carbohydrates. While I’m sure that there’s benefits to a healthy diet and exercise, knowing that my mental attitude is at the root of my sleepiness allows me to overcome accidents like having some bread for lunch, or not getting to the gym. I apparently can eat a whole bag of candy and not get sleepy, so long as I ensured that my mind was engaged and excited about what I was doing. That implies to me that there’s something more interesting behind the fluctuations of my motivation on than diet + exercise.

  9. Alan Schmitt 11 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    How about giving up sugar? It’s true that glucose is readily consumed by our cells, including our brain cells, but most sugar (including white sugar) is usually half glucose and half fructose. And fructose requires the liver to be processed, and may be the cause of insulin resistance.

    If you want glucose, the best source is starch, typically in potatoes.

    If you want to know more about fructose, there are some recent articles online, like this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?pagewanted=all

    I personally get most of my energy (about 60%) from lipids (fat). As a consequence, I feel energetic all day long and have lost weight. If you feel like experimenting, you could try this for a month …

    Thanks for your great blog,

    Alan

  10. Karen Tiede 11 years ago

    Late to the game here; clearing out old email this morning.

    1. Be careful with this. You are conflating short-term effects with long-term health consequences.
    2. You may find that an alternative provider could be more helpful than a traditionally trained MD, although I hesitate to recommend “alt” without reservation. Some people are whack jobs.
    3. I can recommend reading everything you can in the 616.8 section of your local library. Reading up-to-date stuff on autism and Alzheimers, in addition to mid-life memory loss, has given me a much better picture of the whole field.
    The take-away from my recent experiment with sugar, though, is that good attitude trumps even carbohydrates.

    In the short term, maybe. In the long term, diabetes wins. Sorta like hearing loss. The concert may have been fun at the time, but the hearing loss won’t show up for 30 years, maybe. Will you still think it was worth it then?

    While I’m sure that there’s benefits to a healthy diet and exercise,

    Yeah, like longevity, protection against Alzheimer’s, freedom from the need to take other medications that will interfere with your brain… In a rough, unattributed rehash of everything I’ve read, exercise and insulin control are the ONLY user-controllable variables found to protect against Alzheimer’s.

    knowing that my mental attitude is at the root of my sleepiness

    For this to be completely true, you would have to get sleepy every time you have a poor mental attitude. Agreed, you can beat sleepiness with a good mental attitude, but isn’t it easier to simply eat right in the first place?

    Have you read Gary Taubes?

    • Karen Tiede 11 years ago

      Sorry–don’t understand this system’s allowable comments. Item # 1 was supposed to have a flag saying, “lecture ON, lecture OFF.” Hard enough to convey emotion in regular writing–impossible in HTML.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 11 years ago

      Karen: I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to inject that perspective, as it’s something I chose not to do and I probably should have added a disclaimer. I figured, though, that people could come to their own conclusions and didn’t feel that I needed to be so explicit.

      Our respective perspectives are coming from slightly different places, too. For me: the revelation that my mind is not as much of a slave to body chemistry is an important reminder. This isn’t a replacement for good health, although some people automatically jump to a binary interpretation instead of accepting a faceted one. For you: I think you’re saying that documented health practices and preventative behavior are hugely important overall. I’m not arguing against that at all. Eating well and being healthy doesn’t lead to mental clarity and motivation either. Having a good attitude, I am learning, is an even greater contributor to action, which what I was most interested in when I related my experience.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 11 years ago

      Karen: I edited your comment to show the blockquotes a little more cleanly, hopefully maintaining your intent. I’m going to remove the HTML tag instructions since they don’t make sense even to me.