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Modafinil and startups

As I mentioned before, when I was starting my first company, while still working for Accenture, I held a somewhat insane schedule for about 9 months. Every day, I would sleep at 11pm sharp. I would then wake up at 4am, work until 7am, then nap for an hour before going to work at my day job. I then also worked the weekends (though with more sleep on Friday and Saturday night).

What I haven't mentioned on any of my blogs yet is that to enable me to do this, I used a (legal) drug called Modafinil, also known as Alertec or Provigil. In the startup world, where everyone is driven to get more things done than fit in the day's waking hours, the topic of using so-called "cognitive enhancers" surfaces every once in a while. I've mentioned most of the things in this article in Hacker News comments throughout the years, but I felt it made sense to put the whole "report" in one place, here.

Some background about Modafinil

Modafinil is a drug that is approved for treatment of narcolepsy, and to help night shift workers. It's also rumoured to be used by armed forces and other people in situations where people "work" many hours in a row and losing concentration for just a moment can cost their life. Its principle of operation is not clearly known, but it basically claims to remove the "feeling of tiredness", makes you feel more alert, and some have claimed that it "increases intelligence".

Many people use or have used Modafinil even though they don't have narcolepsy, though, because, deliberately or not, it has built a reputation as being a kind of wonder drug that will make you smarter, allow you to sleep a lot less, help you get more stuff done, etc. You can buy it from online pharmacies, and it will usually work out as up to a few pounds per pill - about the price of a coffee, basically. One of the "sales pitches" of Modafinil is that it's like caffeine but without the nervousness (which is somewhat true), and that, unlike caffeine, it doesn't stop you from sleeping (which is true).

Modafinil is also compared to amphetamines (which are often used either for recreation or to treat ADHD), since its effect is somewhat similar. Generally, the comparison states that amphetamines are bad for you and that Modafinil is not as bad because it "works differently", but there is probably more overlap than the proponents of Modafinil would like you to think.

There are no major side-effects to Modafinil use for the vast majority of people, and since it is manufactured by pharmaceutical companies rather than drug dealers, I haven't heard of anyone overdosing on Modafinil (though that's no doubt possible, like with all drugs). The toxicity level is such that you could eat a whole pack and live, although you'd have a really bad few days (but apparently you wouldn't have any long-term damage).

My use of Modafinil

I first experimented with Modafinil, under the Alertec brand, as I was working for Accenture and on my first startup. The usage pattern that I followed for a few months involved waking up briefly at 3am to eat a whole 200mg tablet (which would be active by the time I woke up properly at 4am), and then having a quarter tablet (about 50mg) around 9am, and another quarter just after lunch. That, as well as a decent quantity of coffee, kept me going even though I was otherwise chronically sleep deprived. This was the heaviest usage I ever made of Modafinil, but I also used it more lightly on a large number of occasions when I was well rested.

The last time I used Modafinil was over a year ago. At that point I would occasionally have 50-100mg to get myself through a lot of small boring tasks (as we'll see later, Modafinil helps with that). I know some people who claimed to take several 200mg pills in a day, and even some who said they do that on a regular basis. I think they must be insane. 50mg has a noticeable effect. 100mg is the most I would consider taking when properly rested. More than that, and, despite the myth, you do get "jittery" - overactive, unfocused, tense.

The effects of Modafinil (on me)

So, what effect did Modafinil have? First, a quick disclaimer: these are my observations, not a scientific study, and the study has a sample size of one: me. The person performing the study (me too!) is not a doctor. Your body may behave differently. Hell, for all I know, you may swallow a tenth of a pill and die instantly. Here I'm describing the effects on me when I was not sleep-deprived. The effect when I was sleep-deprived (i.e. during that nasty 9 month period) was the same, but lessened by the exhaustion. Mostly, in that time, Modafinil kept me awake and able to focus and get stuff done, rather than enhancing my brain functions in any significant way.

First of all, Modafinil does, obviously, increase alertness. And it does so in a way that's more pleasant, less tense than caffeine does - but at the same time it's more there, and if you're the kind of person that gets overwhelmed by circumstances regularly, you may well find it's "too much to take". The easiest comparison point is caffeine, so let's compare. At the time, I used to be quite sensitive to caffeine, so the descriptions of what coffee does represent what it used to do to me at the time. I am no longer quite so sensitive. I completed my transition to the dark roast side when I once had a nice strong coffee in the evening and found that it relaxed me.

A small amount of coffee, e.g. half an espresso shot, didn't do much for me. A small (50mg) amount of Modafinil made me a bit more alert and focused (if I had something to focus on), for 6-8 hours, after which it faded out gently.

A moderate amount of coffee, e.g. 1-2 shots of espresso would wake me up, make me feel much less sluggish, and give me a couple of hours of good wakefulness, sometimes followed by a few hours of crankiness. A moderate (100mg) amount of Modafinil gave me 6-8 hours of high alertness, where it was very easy to get things done so long as I didn't need to think about "what do I need to do next?", along with a slight sense of euphoria, followed by a wind-down period of 2-3 hours where I found it hard to focus on "work".

A high amount of coffee, e.g. 3-4 shots of espresso, would have made me anxious, alter my speech so I would sound like I've had too much coffee, make my hands shake, given me embarrassing eye twitches, and generally make it hard to focus on things. A large amount of Modafinil gave me 6-8 hours of very intense alertness and energy, a stronger sense of euphoria (most music sounded really good), and no twitches, but a tension that was vaguely unpleasant, a feeling that "things must get done!" that meant that whatever it was I was doing (whether working or browsing HN) I would be doing very intensely, with obsessive drive, focus, energy.

In all cases, I noticed that Modafinil reduced my peripheral attention (including very slight "edge of your field of vision" quirks), which made it unsafe to drive. Even more importantly, it severely hampered my directed creativity/higher-level thinking. Let me explain that more clearly...

I did feel like I came up with some clever ideas and responses while on Modafinil, some of which seemed like I wouldn't have come up with them normally (i.e. I felt a little smarter), but if I was thinking about, say, designing the architecture of a new component, writing an article, or thinking through anything that required broad thinking rather than narrow focus, Modafinil made me significantly more stupid. Noticeably so. Basically, Modafinil turns you into a laser - with the benefits and drawbacks that this brings. When your brain demands focus, it's very hard to take a wider view.

On the other hand, if I wasn't thinking about anything in particular (e.g. if I was sitting on the bus listening to some good music), my thoughts would wander until they made some interesting connection, and then latch onto it with great focus and dig into it as far as possible. I had quite a few creative ideas for blog posts while on Modafinil, but those were never in a specific area that I deliberately wanted to focus on.

The diminution of broad thinking ability meant that in order to make best use of Modafinil I had to make sure I had a clear, unambiguous task list ready before getting started. There were a few times when I had some really intense and focused and productive... HN commenting sessions... because I didn't have a clear task list and so I'd gotten distracted by the first thing that came up and demanded my attention. If, however, I had a list of 30 bits of programming that would normally have taken me several days, or a major code refactoring task that seemed almost impossible to complete in one sitting due to the number of things that needed to be done - well, that would typically be done by early afternoon.

The music also made a big difference. Listening to Infected Mushroom while high on Modafinil and coding up a storm made me feel like I was some kind of insane coding machine that could complete pretty much any coding task in record time. Listening to Mozart instead gave me a very different feeling (but still very productive).

Then there was the comedown. At the tail end of a Modafinil session, I would invariably feel somewhat drained, empty, like the juice had been sucked out of me. It's worth pointing out that Modafinil is a diuretic, so the juice literally was sucked out of me: diuretics make you pee more. However, one side-effect of the focus is that you don't feel thirst (or hunger, for that matter) so keenly, so even though my body really wanted more water, I could easily sit for hours in front of my computer not drinking anything. I soon found out that this was a recipe for a bad comedown, so I got into the habit of having a nice big glass with half a litre of water in it next to me at all times, which i would refill every time I went to the loo (which was often!). Simply doing that reduced the unpleasantness of the comedown (and reduced the likelihood of headaches to zero), but didn't make it more productive.

Finally, I found that Modafinil made me slightly more irritable. I was, however, looking out for that, so I was aware of it and could compensate for it. But my natural reaction was always a little more aggressive than normal.

On the good side, those tasks which I did line up got done, and with great energy, velocity, etc. A good day on Modafinil could easily concentrate several days' worth of work into one, by getting rid of all the empty distracted bits of the day. This was what made it appealing. Occasionally I would look at my task list and realise that there was way more to do than I could realistically hope to achieve, and that it really needed to be done now. That's when I would start considering a Modafinil day to chew my way through the epic task list and leave not even crumbs behind.

But is it worth it?

Since there are different ways to use Modafinil, let's discuss them in turn.

First, heavy or regular use: it should be obvious to anyone reading this that I don't recommend that, and it should also be obvious to anyone with sense that taking a drug like Modafinil regularly for an extended period of time (coughlike I didcough) is probably not a good idea. Sure, you won't find studies of people who fried their neurons by using Modafinil for 15 years in a row, but that's because Modafinil isn't that old yet, so there haven't exactly been large-sample studies yet. However, anything that leaves you feeling drained like that, and messes directly with brain function, should probably be treated with respect and caution, and not abused.

Second, light, occasional use (e.g. once every week or two). It might sound surprising, but I also don't recommend that. Here's why. What I found with more experimentation of days both with and without Modafinil was that actually, I was just as productive if I was well rested, healthy, well fed with healthy foods and working on something I cared about.

Modafinil is basically just a shortcut to a great productive day, which you can achieve regularly by taking better care of yourself. But, like all shortcuts, it has its costs, like the decrease in peripheral vision and creative thought, or the inevitable health toll that long-term Modafinil use undoubtedly takes.

You can take a risk by taking Modafinil, or you can sort out your life by sleeping properly, eating properly, doing exercise and working on things you care about. That's really the choice here, and the right one should be obvious. Don't work Modafinil into a regular prop. It's no better than any other chemical dependency, and just because it's not addictive doesn't make it good. Instead, focus on the key drivers of having great days regularly: stay healthy, eat good, nutritious food, sleep well, and exercise.

Finally, how about for very rare, once every few months use, or to try just the once? I don't think there's any harm in that. If you want to "experience" Modafinil, take about 100mg, have plenty of water nearby, and a clear task list, put on some awesome music, and get to work! If you feel the burning urge to do that in order to take the mystery out of this so-called wonder-drug, just do it. You'll probably even enjoy it! Just don't make it a habit.

Modafinil and startups

Which brings us back to the theme of this article. Being an entrepreneur is a competitive activity where every brain cell, ever bit of extra productivity counts.

So should you take Modafinil to be a better entrepreneur? Absolutely not. Entrepreneurship is a career. You need to build yourself into someone who can sustainably spot and exploit business opportunities, not burn yourself out on some ill-thought-out venture. Getting things done is part of that, but it's not the most important part, and it's certainly far less important than having a good big picture view of things.

I will come strongly on the side of saying that anyone who wants to build a startup should stay away from any regular or semi-regular Modafinil use, as it will impair their judgement enough to make up for any apparent gain in productivity, and I would further posit that any founder who takes Modafinil regularly has a habit (as I did) of taking on potentially large, unknown long-term liabilities for small short-term gains, which is not a good thing.

Remember, you're in this for the long term. Be smart and invest in yourself.

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Habits of effective startup mentors
Self-employed vs business owners
Why pitches fail