Beauty, intelligence and social skills will get you nowhere without work ethic. Our lives are seemingly measured by its outcomes — our ability to concentrate, maintain productivity and generate results. Yet we’re never quite as hard-working as we should be.

So we’ll endlessly seek quick fixes for our efficiency, reading self-help guides to accelerate our output, writing lengthy to-do lists we can never complete, and over-medicating with caffeine and/or Adderall. In the rat race of modern life, it seems we all need a little edge just to get by. And it’s possible I’ve finally found one.

It’s called Modafinil, and after weeks of reading the smart drug’s raving reviews, I caved to curiosity. I’d come to learn that the pill had a reputation for revitalizing the sleep-deprived and turning couch potatoes into workhorses. I found that professors, astronauts, surgeons, and Silicon Valley millionaires were already utilizing the drug to improve their cognitive performance, and it seemed I was simply late to the game.

Modafinil is a popular pick-me-up classified among a collection of drugs called nootropics (more commonly known as smart drugs). Nootropics came about in the 1950s, when the pharmaceutical community first dared to concoct medicinal supplements that could improve our focus, energy, memory, mood and general mental functioning.

Twenty years later, the French developed Modafinil to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. It's this inherent stimulating design that allows the nootropic to normalize the cognitive activity of sleep-deprived users, providing its mass appeal to our exhausted population. Today, students and young professionals are popping the pills to give their concentration a kick in the ass. I tried it at work, to see if the drug could make me the motivated and productive performer my boss would have wet dreams of.

On an early Wednesday morning around 6:30 a.m., I swallowed half a pill (100 mg) of Modalert, then typed up a list of tasks to accomplish in my phone’s notepad. I then sat in bed, waiting for a surge of ambition to propel me out from under the covers. … But after about an hour, a newfound impetus to seize the day never struck, so in classic impatient high chasing, I took the other half.

I felt the effects about 3 hours later, while I was on my way to work. After a full 4 minutes of positively jamming out to some Katy Perry tune on the radio, I realized something must be very different if I’m suddenly embracing the offensively upbeat songs of pop radio, instead of instantly switching the station to my teary-eyed alt-rock, as I always do.

Once at work, instead of making a cup of coffee and shooting the shit with my coworkers, I immediately booted up my computer and got down to business — I didn’t want to waste my time farting around while I’m all hyped up on study juice. But now that I’d begun recognizing a change in my state of mind, I could begin comparing Modafinil’s effects with the only other study drug I know, Adderall.

The two drugs are similar in that they both achieve the objective of making me a more productive person. Adderall offers that laser-sharp focus that once allowed me to type a 30 page research paper in college. But it's also backfired, occasionally trapping me in a state of mind dead-set on speed-reading the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy when I should have been working.

Modafinil’s focus is certainly less intense, but noticeable all the same. I’m more eager to accomplish the tasks on my to-do list, and consequently less tempted by Netflix, Instagram and dank memes. But the extreme tunnel vision of Adderall is not at all present, and I’m more able to focus without the risk of becoming completely engrossed in something counterproductive.

Adderall also has a habit of making work the only activity I can possibly enjoy. I won’t take a midday walk to appreciate the sunshine, I won’t waste a moment on amusing conversations with my co-workers, and I won’t enjoy the sweet relief of lunchtime, both because it’s an offensive misuse of valuable work time and also because my appetite has been slaughtered like a lamb.

But Modafinil’s milder impact left me capable of taking pleasure in the things Adderall would never allow me to appreciate. I felt cheerful and talkative whenever a co-worker asked me for advice, showed me a video, or started a conversation. I went for a walk, marveled at the blooming tulips and felt no gnawing guilt for taking a little break. My appetite wasn’t as aggressive as usual, but I did eventually grow hungry and ecstatically scarf down a whole meal.

When it comes to Adderall, the worst part of popping a pill is recognizing my day was sustained on prescription meth. The amphetamine floods our brains with dopamine, which may feel pretty heavenly, but is extremely conducive to psychological or physical dependence. After I come down from Adderall’s happy chemical overload, I’m left with little more than an impeccably clean room, a brain drained of pleasure and a feeling of guilt.

But unlike Adderall, Modafinil doesn't trigger a sense of euphoria. According to the DEA, it's not thought to have the same potential for abuse and addiction, which is why it's classified as a Schedule IV substance, while Adderall is listed in the more hazardous Schedule II category.

Modafinil still has its fair share of possible side effects, like headaches, nausea or anxiety — but cutting out the option of physical dependence somehow makes me feel less remorse for my drug-induced productivity on Modafinil than on Adderall.

But more importantly, Modafinil’s motivation is gentler, delicately reminding me that the task at hand is more important than watching WorldstarHipHop YouTube compilations. Adderall’s impulsion is more of a savage whip on the back, aggressively screaming the missed call from my mother can wait because there are still unopened emails in my inbox.

Of course, some people need that tough love. Others, like myself, are more satisfied with an edge that allows us to continue enjoying the little things in life. The remaining few are content to work with no chemical assistance; only a full night’s rest and a can-do attitude. But I don’t know very many of those people.

[originally published July 27, 2017]