Working at the coffee shop: the right environment and the right distractions

Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting piece on why people are increasingly heading to coffee shops to get work done. He discusses four theories: that it’s “just enough distraction,” which forces one to semi-consciously tune out those distractions and focus; that “the weight of hours is lifted,” and having only a couple hours in the coffee shop can actually be beneficial; that it seems less like work than an office environment, and more fun; and from an academic paper, that being alone in the presence of others encourages one to have a purpose, and look busy.

When I head to a coffee shop to get something done — work-related or not — the main benefit seems to be that I’m there with intention. I’m there to work on something specific, and so that’s what I’ll do. The same is true of an office, but I think, as theorized in the article, that the environment has a significant impact. An office seems sterile and forced, while a coffee shop is fun, relaxed, and spontaneous. And most importantly, I’m choosing to be there for the purpose of work, whereas working in an office is simply what one does in an office. Perhaps the presence of others also has a positive effect on adhering to my purpose, because it does feel good to be in a coffee shop accomplishing something, even if I’m the only one who knows.

There’s also the element of change. Patrick Rhone mentions on The Minimal Mac Podcast how simply changing his work location can significantly revitalize his attitude and productivity. Compared to an office, a coffee shop can be a welcome change. And unlike an office, the coffee shop experience is not always the same. The overall environment may be consistent, but there are many different seats to choose from and different customers every day. A coffee shop is continuously changing, while an office remains largely static.

As for distraction, the distractions in a coffee shop are generally pleasant distractions, and I think when they’re not obnoxious, some distractions can be better than none at all. In an office (or at home), when we’re having trouble focusing, we create our own distractions — surfing the internet, eating, chatting, etc. That seems more disruptive than pleasant distractions provided by the environment, which we can easily tune out. It’s not just enough distraction as much as it’s the right kind of distraction.

Time definitely plays a role as well. A couple hours in a coffee shop seems like plenty of time to get lots done, whereas a day in the office can seem longer than desirable. Less time encourages better use of it.

Creativity does not exist in a vacuum; experiences, conversations, reading, writing, the constraints of time and the distractions of life are just as important as quiet moments of focus. And conveniently, the coffee shop is there to provide them.

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