At any given moment, I have about twenty tabs open on each of two to three browser windows. I tend to work on at least five different projects in a day. I’m in an average of ten hours’ worth of meetings in a week. I tend to think that I can multitask, but it turns out I can’t. (No one can.) I’m also responsible for producing strategic plans, which requires lots of uninterrupted planning time and a good deal of headspace. In short, I often feel like my brain is going to explode.
So when I started hearing about “smart drugs”—cognitive enhancers frequently used by entrepreneurs, lawyers, and high-performers in the business community—my interest was piqued. A drug called modafinil, prescribed as a narcolepsy drug, is being used to improve focus, creativity, decision-making, and problem-solving skills in the workplace. So after conducting lots of research (Is it safe? Yes. Is it habit forming? No. Will it work? Probably.), I decided to give it a shot.
The tiny pill, containing 200 mg worth of brain power, is easily snapped in half so you can ease into your dosage. On a rare day without meetings or deadlines, I started with half a pill, popped my earbuds in, and got to work on a web strategy. Within about 30 minutes, I could notice a difference in my ability to focus. The noise and constant shuffle of the office seemed to fall away, and all that existed were diagrams, spreadsheets, and endless possibilities. I was a machine. By noon, I had accomplished what might normally take six or more hours to complete. (We get interrupted every 11 minutes, and it takes us an average of 25 minutes to recover from interruptions.) I wasn’t having any interruptions that day.
Eureka! I thought. All my productivity problems have been solved! This is a miracle!
I decided to make modafinil a part of my daily regimen. But a few days in I was having entirely different experiences. I didn’t have any negative side effects, but one day it would work like a charm, the next, I felt just as distractible as ever. If I didn’t make a point to coordinate taking the drug with zeroing in on a very specific project, I just became hyper-focused on alternating between tabs and reading every interesting-looking article I found on Twitter. And on days with lots of meetings and human interaction, I just found that I was jittery, my face was a little warm, and I was extra chatty.
So is modafinil helpful, or is it a one-time fix? First of all, I’m not a doctor, so don’t listen to anything I say when it comes to medication. Second, everyone is different, so what works for me won’t necessarily work for you.
I’ve found it to be really useful on days when I know that I have the time to devote to a single project. I don’t take it on days that are chock-full of meetings and tactical work, but if I have a media plan, a web strategy, or information architecture to work on, modafinil is my best friend. Often, I can even take a half-dose in the morning, and ride the wave of focus and productivity the rest of the day. I’ve learned how and when to use it so it best works for me.
But there are bigger questions that arise around smart drugs. The questions of should as opposed to could. What does it say about our culture that, in spite of technological advances that allow us to theoretically work harder, smarter, and more efficiently, we’re turning to medical advances to give us an even sharper edge? While people in France are working 35-hour work weeks and legally banned from sending work emails on the weekends, Americans continue to seek hyper-productivity by any means necessary. Truthfully, this doesn’t sit well with me. I think we’d all be a lot happier and healthier if we allowed ourselves to unplug and chill the f*ck out sometimes.
Which is why I work at Well Done. I’ve never felt like more has been asked from me than is fair or that I can handle, and I’ve never felt like my job here has taken an unnecessary toll on my personal life. Except for when I can’t manage to accomplish anything during the day because I’m too distracted, so I end up working through the middle of the night, which is the only time I’m able to focus, and then I’m exhausted and sleep deprived and my work suffers… yadda yadda yadda. Which is why I started taking modafinil. I don’t have any expectations of achieving super-human cognitive abilities a-la Bradley Cooper in Limitless (which I haven’t actually seen, but lots of people reference when talking about modafinil). But I have experienced improved focus and problem-solving in scenarios when, for me, those abilities are typically in short supply.
My philosophy is, if you need help, get it, and embrace whatever helps you do your best work— whether that’s a pot of coffee a day, working offsite, starting work at 5 a.m., or a few smart drugs here and there.