Working Best at Coffee Shops

Why are many telecommuters most efficient in noisy public places with lots of distractions?

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It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. ~ Ernest Hemingway

Telecommuting via laptop and wireless Internet is a relatively new phenomenon. There is, however, a long history of people - especially writers - working from a favorite coffee shop or cafe rather than an office. Today we tend to associate the phenomenon with the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the coffeehouses of Vienna at the turn of the 20th Century. The poet Peter Altenberg was even known to have mail delivered to his favorite hangout.

In many ways, however, the golden age of the coffeehouse workday is now, as any barista can attest. Over the last decade, I've done a fair amount of work in traditional offices, where I am least efficient, various apartments, where I tend to work longer and more productive hours, and a string of coffee shops, the places where I've turned out the most usable words per working minute.

I am not alone.

Take Malcolm Gladwell, who has an office at The New Yorker. "I used to go there every day and I slowly kind of weaned myself away," he once told The Guardian. Instead he prefers to work in restaurants.

There's one in the lower East Side. "The waiters are all Australian and they play The Smiths all day long which I find so fabulous. I always go there on the weekends. Then there are restaurants in Little Italy that I go to. I often go to these places in the middle of the afternoon, when they'll let me linger."

In his acknowledgments in Blink, Malcolm thanks the staff of Savoy in SoHo. "I go there so often. I wrote a big chunk of my book there. They have these huge windows and they open them out so that people on the street are walking right by you. You feel the traffic; you feel in the middle of things and paradoxically I find it very calming."
Perhaps if more restaurants or bars had wifi I too would work at them. As is, the coffee shop is my most frequent outside-the-home-office haunt. It's much the same for my friends who telecommute. I've surveyed them recently to see if there's any agreement as to why it's often better to work from Starbucks and its analogues than home or the office. There are three competing theories.

JUST ENOUGH DISTRACTION

This is my own best guess. Put in a silent room before a blank page, it's almost impossible to write. Neither is it be ideal to work near a television set that keeps drawing one's attention or a room where a child keeps interrupting. In a coffeehouse, its rare for someone to intrude on the space of a patron with an open laptop and a look of concentration. Still, there is just enough conversation and foot traffic in the background that you're forced to semi-consciously tune it out.

There's that scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the latter is asked to demonstrate his shooting prowess, but can't hit the target unless he's moving. On some level, I think the same thing is going on when I write. Forced to focus on a single thing the mind rebels, whereas adding another element somehow focuses it. The coffeehouse somehow provides that element.

THE WEIGHT OF HOURS IS LIFTED

Earlier this week, I interviewed screenwriter and columnist Rob Long on the creative process. (Stay tuned - you'll eventually see the Q&A at TheAtlantic.com.) He described the awful feeling that sometimes accompanies being at your desk with a discrete task to finish. It's plausible that you might be sitting there for many hours - even all day, and if you can't finish the script or the column that's due, perhaps all night too. And that's existentially terrible! Whereas at a coffee shop, it's accustomed to spend just a couple of hours, and at worst you'll be kicked out at closing time. That isn't so bad. And the prospect of having to leave, whether due to closing time or one's laptop battery running out or whatever, can spur one to work faster against the clock. (This is the same insight behind the Pomodoro Technique, which some people swear by.)

OUTSIDE THE OFFICE IT SEEMS LESS LIKE WORK

This is another advantage cited by Gladwell. Writing "seems like a fun activity now," he says. "Kind of casual. It's been more seamlessly integrated into my life and that's made it much more pleasurable." Newbies to working remotely almost always agree. Being out in the world during the middle of the workday almost feels like getting away with something, even for people who actually waste a lot more time in office settings reading ESPN.com, gossiping with colleagues, or taking long lunches. (Perhaps the feeling of getting away with something is what encourages them to work without further indulgence.) What I wonder is whether this phenomenon will endure or wear off when working remotely becomes the norm, and no longer feels like a special treat.


THERE IS A FOURTH theory that hasn't been raised by anyone to whom I've spoken, but when I ran across it in an academic paper on the rise of wifi in coffeehouses I immediately thought it had efficiency implications:

...when we are alone in a public place, we have a fear of "having no purpose". If we are in a public place and it looks like that we have no business there, it may not seem socially appropriate. In coffee-shops it is okay to be there to drink coffee but loitering is definitely not allowed by coffee-shop owners, so coffee-shops patrons deploy different methods to look "busy". Being disengaged is our big social fear, especially in public spaces, and people try to cover their "being there" with an acceptable visible activity.
Is the coffeehouse boost in productivity something you've experienced? If you've got a theory different than the ones above - or if your efficiency plummets outside the cubicle or home office - drop me a line. It seems clear to me that telecommuting is only going to grow more common, and as it becomes easier to access the Internet (my friends with the iPhone4 or new Blackberries "tether" their smart phones to their computers for Web access almost anywhere). I am curious to see whether coffeehouses retain their status as the preferred "third place" for remote workers.

Photo credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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