Baba Shiv is a marketing professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He specializes in exploring how neuronal structures in the brain affect decision making, as well as what prompts and supports human creativity.

This would all be interesting enough, but one particular aspect of what inspires or limits creativity caught my attention in his research, and it has to do with coffee.

Most people I know relate to coffee in the following manner: It’s something to wake me up in the morning, pick me up in the afternoon, and avoid in the evening or nighttime if I want to be able to get to sleep.

Time of day is considered the most important factor.

But Shiv throws an unexpected twist into the mix that could fundamentally alter your workday caffeine habits. He says that, neurologically-speaking, caffeine is a “physiological arouser,” meaning it highlights and expands whatever state you’re already in.

If you’re in a creative frame of mind, it’ll make you even more creative.

But if you’re stressed or anxious, it will amplify that.

This is good to know, given that a lot of people are prompted to take a coffee break when they feel anxious. You feel overwhelmed at how much you have to do, or you’ve got a meeting coming up you’re not looking forward to, and you want to get out of the office to grab a cup of joe to “calm your nerves.”

Except apparently that venti Cascara Latte is more likely to jangle your nerves than to calm them.

What to do instead?

Shiv makes straightforward recommendations based on his research: If you’re in a good mood, feeling productive, or you’ve got a brainstorming session coming up that you feel good about, it’s a great time to grab a cup of joe. You’re in a positive frame of mind and coffee will help you keep riding the wave.

If you’re anxious, on the other hand, skip the coffee.

As Shiv says, “If a person is motivated, [caffeine] will help him or her; if stressed, it will agitate–the last thing an innovator needs.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of healthy and effective alternatives to coffee. For example, if you’re experiencing stress and need a reboot, one of the best things you can do is to go for a brisk walk. According to Shiv, exercise that gets the heart pumping releases a peptide that produces serotonin, which calms you down while keeping you alert at the same time.

Other alternatives to a stressed-out coffee break:

  • Drink decaf tea (this is nice because you can order it at a cafĂ©, so your habit doesn’t have to change that much)
  • Send a short note or text of appreciation to someone (gratitude releases dopamine in the brain, which lifts your mood immediately)
  • Listen to two or three songs you love (or that are shown to make you feel powerful)
  • Eat a healthy snack, like a piece of fruit (this can also help boost or balance your blood sugar)

Whatever you choose, may it be grounds for inspiration.

Originally published at