Posted: Sat, May 18, 2013 | By: IQ
by Sebastian Marshall
Modafinil isn’t the biggest gain I’ve made towards peak experiences—that’d be just basic exercise. It’s not the largest gain towards general well-being, which is just a cleaner diet and very good hydration. It’s not even the biggest no-brainer of a nootropic, the honor of which probably goes to Piracetam.
But with that said—wow. It’s some pretty amazing stuff.
this essay was originally posted on Sebastian’s blog, HERE
In this post, we’ll cover:
1. The effects and subjective experience, negative and postive, of Modafinil.
2. The routine I built around taking it, through trial and error, for best performance.
3. Some jumping-off points for further research.
Please note that I’m not a physician or nutritionist. I’ve consulted with some, and am an enthusiastic amateur. Your health is incredibly precious and you should get informed personally through thorough research, and it’s absolutely worth spending the small amount of money to consult with trained professionals if you’re changing your health and medical routines.
Okay, so what’s the world like on modafinil? There seems to be a lot of curiosity around it. Having been taking it on-and-off for a few months now and tracking my performance both objective and subjective, here’s one take.
We’ll start with the downsides.
Negative Effects of Modafinil
Downside #1: My kinesthetic sense is sharper.
This actually isn’t a good thing, in my book. I’ve got a variety of nagging sports injuries, some latent damage from a motorcycle crash in Cambodia, etc. I’m more in touch with my body and my senses are sharper on modafinil, but that actually brings to the surface some otherwise acclimated latent pain. It can be distracting as I feel some of the old damage in my ribs, formerly broken hand, etc. The gains from a greater kinesthetic sense are relatively small with what I do, feeling old injuries more acutely can be distracting. (More on how I deal with this in a moment.)
Downside #2: Same with vision, though this one is more of a mixed blessing.
I pick up colors, patterns, backgrounds, and details to a larger extent. I notice buildings on the horizon and more of the surroundings. This is neat for “getting presence,” but for instance, there’s a restaurant near my office with an outdoor area with Christmas lights strung over it. Those neon lights are much brighter, almost distracting on modafinil. It’s not such a problem in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, but I think it’d be maddening in Tokyo or Las Vegas.
Downside #3: I lose track of time.
It’s good for focusing, putting your head down, and getting a lot of things done. But I really lose track of time, and have to set alarms. I’ll look around and it’ll be 5AM, and 8PM was not that long ago. Stupid basic things, like sitting in a cafe two hours before an appointment next door. Normally no problem, on modafinil I need to set alarms things like that. I won’t take modafinil in a day stacked with a variety of things that have to happen at specific times, unless someone else is managing my schedule.
Downside #4: Fluency of thought increases, but can easily go all over the place.
I don’t like to be on modafinil with five things on my mind. One or two, good. This requires strict agendaing… if there’s five things and I’m task switching between them, then it’s very easy to fall into an intensely focused bout of uselessness. If I’m researching quotes for writing, I could wind up reading about Shakespeare or some military conflict for a few hours. Breaks are dangerous too—when I was first acclimating used to modafinil, I definitely burned some 10-hour stretches just playing online Chess, which would never happen not on the stuff.
Downside #5: Appetite is gone.
I don’t want to eat anything. Normally after lifting weights, I’ll eat a salad with chicken or tuna, and then a couple more plates of chicken. On modafinil, I’ll feel full three-quarters of the way through the salad, and have to force-eat more to get some sustainable amount of calories. Snacking on nuts slowly can help with this, but it’s actual a real problem since I almost always try to lift on days I take modafinil (more on this in a moment).
Downside #6: Mild headaches.
I’ve sometimes gotten mild headaches on the stuff. This might be due to unrelated things though—like forgetting to eat, drink water, etc. I’m unsure—I now carefully manage when I take modafinil and the routine around taking it, and don’t get headaches any more.
Downside #7: Long half-life plus can’t-sleep-on-it requires some planning.
The half-life of modafinil is 12-15 hours, which is just absurd. Sometimes I’ll be planning on doing a work stretch on modafinil, but it’ll hit early evening and I hadn’t taken it yet. Then I’m in a bit of a bind. If I take it, I won’t be sleeping well until 7AM to 10AM the next day, and I’ll probably wake up between 11AM to 2PM pretty alert with it still in my system. This might sound good, but it’s not—you have to actually plan around taking the stuff. I’d really prefer if it had a 4-6 hour half-life.
I like to start with the downsides of something for perspective—the majority of articles like to start with the “wonder and awe” aspects, which leaves out some important information. On modafinil, I experience greatly heightened senses, though that’s not necessarily a plus (bright/neon lights can be distracting, I feel pain from old injuries). It’s conducive to “head-down” working, but that can easily go off the rails. It’s powerful stuff that lasts a long time, so needs to be seriously planned around. It’s possible to neglect hydration and eating on the stuff, which is also bad. I had headaches on it sometimes before experimenting and building a routine around it.
Positive Effects of Modafinil
The biggest effect is that it obliterates the need to sleep.
It’s just gone. You don’t need to sleep on the stuff.
If you’re sleep deprived, you get back to “normal and pretty good” quickly, though I think that’s a bit of a dangerous game so I don’t play it. Rather, I try to take modafinil when I’m on a reasonable amount of sleep, which results in a prolonged and stable much-increased baseline of energy and alertness.
The mechanism of action for modafinil isn’t fully understood (which is always troubling to me when I’m researching something; after I did a lot of research on this one, I decided to go for it anyways). It’s a nootropic, and not an amphetamine or traditional stimulant. The current state of science is that it’s not fully understood how it works.
But tiredness is gone. For me, it brings a sharp and clear awakeness, similar to a non-caffeine user having a large coffee, except the effect is larger and there’s no jitteryness or agitation.
I do better writing on it, and put abstract connections together better. It’s particularly helpful when I’m trying to do something that’s somewhat boring but could use a dose of good creativity, like writing sales materials for a conservative industry where it’s hard to get great copy and good points. I particularly like to do positioning, branding, and putting the finishing touches on products and services on modafinil. Integrating creativity into logical thinking (which have some opposition naturally) tends to be easier on it. So is synthesizing new information, like if I’m reading Ogilvy On Advertising and trying to implement some ideas from that.
I write much better cold emails on modafinil to meet people. I seem to put a better sense of connecting with people, their interests, and accomplishing goals together at the same time on it. The response rate is much higher even though I can dash it off quite fast without constructing the email at all.
I try to avoid activities that have highly variable, moment-by-moment results like making sales calls. I can too easily focus on one call or action and deconstruct and think it through for what seems like a short time, but is actually quite long.
I find it’s not so good for solo research, but can good for researching with someone else who “brings things back around and keeps them on track.”
I’m far less likely to “put stuff off” or “schedule it” on modafinil—it’s like, “Why aren’t we doing it right now?” Though I try to leave very rote, repeatable tasks that don’t require creativity for other days, since I don’t take the stuff every day.
I work much faster—this article is already at 1500 words. I’ve been thinking about this article for a week, outlined it yesterday in 20 minutes, and I’m now 30 minutes into writing it. I don’t normally write that fast, not at all.
It’s a great “get over the top” for particularly difficult problems. You know, the kind where you know you know the answer, and it’s right there in your face, but you can’t quite get it? Lately, instead of beating my head against the wall, I take some final notes on problems like that and leave it for when I take modafinil.
I have more energy in general, and a general better sense of well-being. I’m more optimistic on it by a little bit. Surprisingly, I seem less impatient (there’s a light fleeting sense of, “I shouldn’t be wasting this time…” if I’m in high-creative mode on modafinil and doing something rote, but not much aggravation or hostility with it.)
As a caveat though, I’ve had bad experiences when taking modafinil in a particularly bad mood. If I was ruminating and having a particularly bad day, taking modafinil made me get deeper into the rut and accomplish nothing. Eventually on those days I’d wind up doing the 10-hours-of-online-chess thing to just block the ruminating. So it’s not a cure-all, it’s a good boost for moods ranging from “slightly below average” up to “excellent,” but not a good solution for particularly bad days.
My Routine on Modafinil For Effectiveness
I had hit-or-miss experiences with modafinil until I built a routine around it. First, my normal routine.
My normal routine includes a diet heavy in protein, moderate in fat, and almost no carbohydrates. In the morning, I take 1600mg of Piracetam along with Vitamin C, fish oil, calcium, collagen, glucosamine, and hyaluronic acid. In the wintertime or if not getting much sun, I add Vitamin D. I also consume way too much caffeine, I’ve been scaling back from 6-7 coffees/teas per day to 3-5. I’m happy with the majority of these lifestyle choices, except the caffeine which is just simple addiction that I haven’t been willing to go through the withdrawal effects to break yet. I occasionally take melotonin, which promotes better sleep. I’ll usually do this if I’m sleep deprived and want to sleep 10+ hours to recover, but I never never take melotonin around the same timeframes I’m taking modafinil—if tolerance building or dependency effects are coming on, I want to know it and not accidentally have it covered up.
I lift weights 2-4 times per week, and usually go for a 2-4 hour walk once or twice per week, along with a good amount of walking mixed into my lifestyle.
Warning: Speculation follows. Check with doctors, nutritionists, do your own research. This is just my speculating based on my experience, with a sample size of one.
Out of everything I take to supplement, Vitamin C, fish oil, calcium, and collagen are pretty standard supplements for healthy people. I doubt Vitamin C, calcium, or collagen has much of an interaction with modafinil. Fish oil might have some impact and relevance to the discussion, in that it tends to promote good moods and reduce inflammation, both of which are relevant. I take hyaluronic acid and glucosamine for some soft tissue damage I had, which definitely helped healing and recovery, and seems to have minimal impact on mental state.
Piracetam probably has the largest interaction with Modafinil. Piracetam is another nootropic, which has some qualities of a stimulant and generally seems to increase my working memory, capacity for thought, and problemsolving. Piracetam was first synthesized in 1964 and there have been people on constant usage of it since then, and it seems to be rather safe. The biggest point on Piracetam is that it seems to promote brain connectivity, which heightens and expands the effects of other mind alterants. I suspect that modafinil has a greater effectiveness and a faster effectiveness when combined with Piracetam.
I also consume a significant amount of caffeine, but I don’t have a baseline before-and-after—I’ve been taking caffeine the entire time I take modafinil, so I can’t comment. There might be some sort of interaction there, or might not.
So, my first experiences with modafinil were mixed. Some wonderful ones, some poor ones.
These days, when I take modafinil, I take it 20-30 minutes after I take my start-of-day supplements (Piracetam, Vitamin C, fish oil, calcium, collagen, hyaluronic acid, glucosamine) and I try to heavily hydrate before taking it and have a large coffee, since I can easily forget later. I eat some light protein, usually a couple eggs or a pack of nuts. I then make sure I go to the gym in the next hour or two. I won’t take modafinil any more without doing intense physical exercise.
That’s the most important thing for consistent good feelings and production on modafinil—the post-workout hormones with dopamine, etc, seem to dull the pain from injuries and potential headache, make me relax a little more (which helps me knock off the task-switching which can ruin productivity).
I try to have a few problems I’d like to work out on already laid out, so I can just dive in. It’s best if they’re organized in such a way that there’s no desire to switch between them. For instance, maybe I have three pieces of writing I’d like to do—I’ll just work on one of them, in that case. Having problems that are related (a sales campaign and a marketing campaign that have lots of feedback between them) is particularly problematic, since I’ll get ideas for both of them that are worth capturing, but it’ll take me out of the intense flow.
I try not to have any appointments scheduled.
After the gym, I eat the salad and drink a huge pitcher of ice water. Probably 30 minutes after that, I force myself to eat another plate of chicken or a pack of nuts (I don’t want to), and order a coffee. While I’m eating, I’m very open to doing random things. I’ll skim my list of projects and campaigns, go through my email, listen to audiobooks or music, read a little, or whatever. Right after the gym I’m kind of in a blissful mood and not quite ready to put my head down, so I just enjoy it and take in some good inputs.
About 30 minutes after the gym (3-4 hours after taking morning supplements, 1.5-3.5 hours after taking modafinil) I hit the highest part of my creative stride. I try to be solo at the this time, and work on difficult problems I couldn’t normally solve. It’s a great time for writing, in particular, and all sorts of other abstract problemsolving.
This time will run for a couple hours, and around hours 5-8 I like to start working on something collaborative with someone. Early in the supplement/modafinil/gym/food cycle, thoughts and production come too fast and I want to just channel it and stay in flow state. After a few hours, it slows down a bit and I’m “just” a more energetic/optimistic/slightly-increased-senses-and-thought version of myself. It’s good for collaborating.
My experiences are with 200mg doses of Modalert from MyModafinil, which is a generic version that costs around $2 per dose and is made in India. It’s lightly controlled in the USA, so you do your own research and get a prescription if you’re interested in it. I’ve had good experiences with MyModafinil.
For further reading, Gwern’s article on Modafinil is quite scientific.
Dave Asprey at Bulletproof Exec is a big fan, as described in, “Why You Are Suffering from a Modafinil Deficiency.” I wouldn’t say the edge from it is quite that big as Asprey describes it, but yes, it’s definitely possible to do things creatively on it that aren’t off of it.
Daniel Tenner’s “Modafinil and Startups” is insightful—he used it to combat sleep deprivation, so that’s where you can get a take on that. He had some similar experiences as me (if you don’t have a focused thing or two to do, it’s easy to go all over the place) but some were different (his periperal vision declined; mine improved almost to the point of it being distracting). The Hacker News discussion on Tenner’s piece is good too.
Just A Few Recommendations
Mostly, I’m not making recommendations—just sharing my experience. However, I do have a few.
1. Research thoroughly if you get into any new medicinal or pharmaceutical routine. It’s just a smart practice. I’ll try to write an article sometime in the next week about how I evaluate pharmaceuticals/addictiveness, but you should definitely be familiar with dosages, tolerance-building, withdrawal effects, contraindication and drug interactions/reactions. It’s your life and health, so it’s worth spending time to learn.
2. Try to talk to a few people directly who have used whatever you’re considering. The internet makes this really easy, there’s no really good reason not to.
3. Find a good health professional with similar philosophy to you that understands your goals, and get professional advice. The right professional can do wonders for helping you make good decisions and avoid bad decisions.
4. On a personal note, I’d recommend Piracetam as a better starting point than Modafinil for someone who has never done nootropics… it’s just much less hardcore in every respect. It doesn’t lead to such huge gains, but it has a lower half-life, less side effects, and overall doesn’t change your day and life as much as Modafinil.
O man, take care!
What does the deep midnight declare?
“I was asleep—
From a deep dream I woke and swear:—
The world is deep,
Deeper than day had been aware.
Deep is its woe—
Joy—deeper yet than agony:
Woe implores: Go!
But all joy wants eternity—
Wants deep, wants deep eternity.”
Top image by Arenamontanus
Sebastian Marshall Marshall has given talks on the future of fundraising in nonprofits, economics, history, overcoming adversity, finance, biochemistry, productivity, creativity, thinking, mental models, and entrepreneurship. If you’re looking for actionable insights, an unforgettable speaking experience, and highly practical content, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Sebastian blogs at http://sebastianmarshall.com