Working Effectively at Coffee Shops

If you are amongst the fortunate few who have broken free from the shackles of an office, congratulations! “Telecommuter”, “Teleworker”, “Nomad Worker”, whatever you go by, the implication is that you have taken personal responsibility for your productivity. Now, how are you going to actually manage that? Having worked for years from coffee shops around the world, I’ve collected some of the lessons I’ve learned here.

Coffee cup and a laptop

Merits of working out of a coffee shop

What does a coffee shop have over a working at home or at the office does not?

  • Strangers - It can get lonely working day in and out, isolated from others. Your brief interactions with baristas and patrons will help break up the day, and come in perfectly tiny, convenient doses.

  • Distance from co-workers - How often have you heard someone laud how much more work they got done when they stayed late or came in to the office early, while nobody was around? When you maintain a bit of distance, co-workers will have to work a tiny bit harder than shouting over the cubicle wall to infringe on your focus – and when the topic is petty, they often won’t. This doesn’t mean you should be inaccessible, but this distance is a convenient filter for the fluff, and results in fewer distractions and a greater respect for each other’s time and attention.

  • A destination which mentally prepares you to work - An office worker arrives to the office for the purpose of work, and when they stop working, they leave. This sounds obvious, but its effect is not; when you walk through the doorway to your office, or in our case the coffee shop, your purpose there is the same – to work. This mentally prepares you to focus on your task in a surprisingly effective way.

  • Variety and inspiration - Chances are you are a knowledge worker of some sort, and creativity is a vital component to your work. So change up your routine! Varying your environment can keep those creative juices flowing, whether you’re in a coffee shop in a different part of town, or in a different hemisphere. When you can work out of a coffee shop, you can work anywhere.

  • Coffee or Rent? - If you were to add together four $3 drinks per day (at the extreme), 20 days a month, it comes out to $240/month spent in drinks. If you consider this rent, it is still less than renting a desk at most co-working establishments, and likely the coffee itself is better than you’ll find in your typical office kitchen.

  • Emphasis on a productivity - Since the coffee shop is not entirely within your control, you must stay vigilant if you wish to remain productive. I find when you’re on guard like this, you transition from thinking of productivity like the weather – out of your control and as something that happens to you – “hmmm, i wasn’t very productive today”, to something that happens because of you: “I could have gotten more done if I had X”. Very quickly, you become a “productivity hacker”, culling your bad habits, and experimenting with new ways to get a little more done.

Tools of the seasoned coffee shopper

Essential equipment for effective coffee shop working

Be prepared. I consider the following the bare minimum for effective coffee-shoppin’:

  • Bag - This Canvasco bag is made out of sailcloth, and has held up really well. I was drawn to it because of its wide shoulder strap, which allows me to carry lots of stuff without cutting into my shoulder.

  • Laptop - Whatever your unique requirements, ensure the laptop is extra sturdy, as you’re going to be carting it all over the place, and banging it into things far more than you’d expect or prefer.

  • Laptop charger - Power outlets are often few and far-between, so arrive with your laptop charged. When the precious power outlet becomes available – pounce.

  • Pen and paper - Even a unabashed technophile such as myself will readily concede the superiority of simple paper for many tasks.

  • In-ear headphones - These are absolutely mandatory for productivity. They allow you to go into your own little zone, while blocking out the shop’s questionable background music and distracting adjacent conversations. I use the Shure SE215 ; they sound quite good, and offer enough sound isolation that I sometimes wear them as earplugs, without any sound playing.

  • Laptop Lock - Be paranoid. Assume that there is a thief ready to swipe your laptop the second you run off the the restroom. For bonus points, lock your screen so nobody messes with your files while you’re not looking.

  • Punch cards - Most coffee shops will have loyalty punch cards. If you’re a frequent coffee-shopper, the punches can add up fast. Collect the cards, and keep them rubber-banded or in a little case with your laptop bag, instead of letting them inflate your wallet.

  • Business cards - I meet people in the coffee shop all the time. Even in that casual environment, I prefer the professionalism of having a business card on hand.

Scattered Tips

  • Justify your presence - If you sit at a coffee shop all day without paying, you will be discouraged from returning, either directly or indirectly. A purchase every 2 hours is reasonable. If the place is crowded, make a purchase more often.

  • Dress in layers - Coffee shops are usually drafty, and will often even leave their doors open to encourage walk-by business, well into the colder months. You’re probably not generating much warmth sitting still in a chair, so dress like you might be working outside.

  • Have a couple go-to, reliable locations - For when you can’t tolerate any surprises.

  • Know the difference between a cafe and a coffee shop - For our purposes, a coffee shop is a place where can sit for an extended period of time, uninterrupted. This requires you seat yourself, and go up to the counter for service. If waitstaff comes to your table, it is not a good candidate for more than brief, emergency work.

  • Mind your posture - Coffee shops invest woefully little in the quality of their seating – second-hand church pews, old couches, awkward stools, you name it. Pay special attention to where and how you sit. For example: for leaning your arms against, as in typing or writing, rectangular tables are superior to round “bistro” tables.

And you?

Are you a nomad worker? What have you found does and doesn’t work for you at coffee shops? Let me know!

This post was published on the evening of Sunday, September 23rd, 2012