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Working Best at Coffee Shops (theatlantic.com)
249 points by GiraffeNecktie 2012 days ago | hide | past | web | 84 comments | favorite

My theory is subtly different from these. I sometimes call it "ambient sociability".

Humans are pack creatures. If you put us in solitary confinement we go insane. This is generally true even for introverted people; only on the far edge of the bell curve do you find people who crave absolute solitude for weeks or months on end (and these people tend to be really odd, and it's often hard to tell if the oddness is cause or effect.)

However, as every reader of programming productivity books knows, being surrounded by a bunch of people that is constantly interrupting you makes it hard to focus. And so civic design has evolved the library, the coffeeshop, and the coworking space: Places where you can be alone yet also surrounded by people.

The secret is to surround yourself with people who don't have the same agenda as you. Then you won't often be interrupted by things that break your focus: The staff might occasionally ask to refill your coffee, and you'll get interrupted if the building catches fire, but otherwise you can work on your own thing.

  > The secret is to surround yourself with people who don't
  > have the same agenda as you
Absolutely. I was called for Jury Duty a few months back. No courts ended up needing jurors during my two week service, so I ended up sitting in a comfortable room with wifi and a bunch of people I didn't know who weren't interested in what I was doing.

I got more work done in those two weeks than I had sitting in my office or working from home. It was magical. The next time a heavy deadline rolls around I'm considering packing my stuff and heading to the university library -- anywhere where I can reattain that ambient sociability.

There's also the possibility that this comes more from the change in atmosphere than the particular atmosphere that you change to. Maybe for some people here the change to an atmosphere of ambient sociability is just more of a contrast than the alternatives they've tried.

I've heard and have a lot of anecdotal evidence that would suggest this, but of course that's anecdotal evidence. However, I think most of the answers here are influenced at least somewhat by this.


I think you are referring to the Hawthorn effect/experiment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawthorne_effect

I had read years ago that studying in different locations tends to increase retention of material. Don't have the reference anymore.

Maybe there is a general principle of physical novelty stimulating or "prepping" the brain for intellectual work. Just speculation, though...

They kept you there for two weeks without a trial? What country?

No, they kept me available for jury service for two weeks.

10:00am: show up at courthouse. Get some free coffee, sit in the juror's assembly room.

12:00pm: Lunch break

1:30pm: Back from lunch.

3:00pm: If courts needed no jurors, go home.

Do that for two weeks, get paid $20 per day by the courts for my time.

Franklin County Municipal Court, Columbus Ohio, United States. While I'm here I urge anyone also in this area to attend jury service if called. The jury commissioner is awesome.

Yes, exactly. I did a lot of my dissertation work and writing in my favorite local coffeeshop. Basically, I didn't feel shut off from my community, despite the fact that I was working.

The only difference with a coffeeshop in a small college town is that after a while, you become a regular, and know all of the other regulars and the staff. So actual conversations happen. But, as someone who spent a lot of time working, I figured that amount of social interaction was good. (And I met some great people this way.) It's genuine social interaction, though. It was quite different than the conversations I had at the office with professors and other grad students.

I call it "anonymous company".

It works for me when it blends into an undisturbing mixture. This can be, for example, either a few quiet, neighboring conversations and some low, enjoyable music. Or it can be my favorite university cafe, jam packed with conversing parties, but where all the conversations -- and a bit of background music -- blend into a relatively indistinguishable roar.

I can choose to pay a bit more attention to my surroundings -- get lost in a bit of imagining or discreet voyeurism or just the ambiance, while my subconscious moves forward. Or I can focus in on my own work without single neighboring events triggering heightened attention and distraction.

A quiet cafe with a single neighboring group, or some dude on his cell phone: That's murder on the concentration.

My theory is subtly different from these. I sometimes call it "ambient sociability".

That's a beautiful way of putting it.

I absolutely can be productive in a coffee shop. The best ones are busy enough that I feel social activity going on around me and loud enough that I can't pick out individual conversations without effort.

The ambient sociability, as you put it, lets me feel some sense of connection to the world. The fact that I don't have any actual connection to the people surrounding me lets me focus and get work done.

I completely agree. If I'm in a coffee shop, I'm not going to catch a bit of a stranger's conversation focused on the app that I just rolled out, but that happens constantly at work, and I'm pulled away from what I'm thinking about.

a bit of a stranger's conversation focused on the app that I just rolled out

I find that this is the biggest problem: People can be actively trying not to interrupt you but it's no good because they're talking about something that's related to your work and you can't help but overhear. If they're in earshot and they're talking, distraction is inevitable.

It's a pity that at a time with such a high unemployment rate we can't manage to mobilize the resources to build every programmer a tiny office with a door that can close.

"Ambient sociability" is my new favorite expression. Thanks!

I realize that I'm fighting the tide, but I'm going to ask anyway: please don't do this very often. And when you do, please have basic respect for other people, purchase from the business frequently (every hour or so, at minimum), limit your total seat time to an hour if the place is crowded, and don't be "that guy" -- the dude spread over two tables, with the laptop stand, the iPad, the backup drive, the portable keyboard, mouse, etc.

There's nothing worse than walking into an otherwise pleasant cafe and being unable to sit because the place is filled with laptop zombies and/or dudes (and it's always dudes) holding "business" meetings. In San Francisco and Seattle, there are dozens of cheap co-working facilities, but you still can't get a seat to eat lunch in a place like Coffee Bar or the Creamery for all of the nerds that crowd in between 9AM and 5PM.

Finally, if you find yourself working at a cafe for eight hours a day, every day, you're abusing the system. Go to a co-working facility, and pay the minimal amount of money for a desk. If you can afford paying for multiple coffees every day, you can afford a co-working space. If you can't afford either, you should work at home, or in a library. The coffee shop is not your personal, low-rent office space.

I see your point, but I absolutely do not think that a lot of coffee shops would be at the point they are today without the "laptop zombies" (which have supplanted people with books, or people with pencils and paper).

The coffee shop I go to has completely embraced them, and has little workspaces for everybody to use.

I probably wouldn't ever go to a boutique coffee shop if not to use it as a workspace, and I don't know many people who would either.

If I'm looking for a place to just hang out with some friends, there are many, many, many bars and restaurants that are much more conducive to "hanging out" than coffee shops are.

I think coffee shops have always been workspaces, and I don't think the modern coffee shop would exist without the customers that a lot of people seem to think are leeches.

thanks for posting this. I agree fully. The place I frequent is very small, so one person taking up a lot of space can be really annoying. The worst is when two people push two tables together (tables meant for 3-4 people!) and sprawl out over them.

Clearly you've never been to the Starbucks at Slauson and La Tierja in LA. There are guys there who set up everything but their nameplate and a picture of their family on their table.

Not my experience. Here's why...

A coffee shop and a laptop are convenient, even fun ways to produce mediocre content. A blog entry, email, maybe even cleaning up a few lines of code. But as most programmers know, sooner or later, you have to enter another mode to get that additional "oomph" to get the important critical-path work done. Some call it "the zone".

In fact we just talked about this the other day:


A coffee shop is probably the best way to think you've entered the zone without actually entering the zone. The can be very dangerous. You've had a good time surrounded by like minded people (kinda like being here at hn), but you've never actually transcended anything really important.

I spend time at the library one or more times per week, sometimes just to get out of the office. It's fun to think and get transactions done, but fortunately, I have an internal guide that tells me, "Time to get back to the silence, large screen, and comfortable chair of the office to get the real work done."

I realize that this isn't the same experience as others, but I still often want to ask them, "Did you really get done what you wanted to get done in the coffee shop?"

This subject reminds me of a great line from Joel Spolsky's "Hitting the High Notes":


"Five Antonio Salieris won't produce Mozart's Requiem. Ever. Not if they work for 100 years."

My version:

"Five workers in the coffee shop won't produce the killer work that one in a dedicated space can produce. Ever. Not if they drink 100 lattes."

I absolutely agree that my best work is done in a silent atmosphere. I can't even listen to music, it's so distracting.

But, having observed this, I tried locking myself in a completely private apartment all day, with the perfect ergonomic desk and everything, and waited for the magic to happen. That turns out to be too much of a good thing. It just does not work. I knew that I was cracking up when I went to the barber one afternoon and it ended up being the highlight of my day. When you find yourself tearing up at the prospect of spending fifteen glorious minutes making stupid small talk with a barber that you've never met before you know that you're spending too much time alone.

My guess is that what I really need is a small private office (home office, or otherwise) within easy walking distance of a library or coffeeshop or, better yet, both. Mix it up a little.

Silence is great, but sometimes silence can be, well, too silent. I bounce back and forth between coffee shops and my home office, because sometimes I want to sit at home in silence or listen to music, and othertimes sitting at a coffee shop with a lot of ambient noise helps me get into the zone. Something about having a lot of random noise around that I don't care about listening too helps me concentrate.

Or more customizable: http://boodler.org/

When I need to focus, I listen to music, but it has to be instrumental. Jazz, classical, even ambient (Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" is my go-to album for focusing). I've also used noise generators, like Ambience for the iPhone, or Bloom (also by Brian Eno).

I have a real hard time getting focused unless there is some sort of music playing.

sometimes I want to sit at home in silence or listen to music, and othertimes sitting at a coffee shop with a lot of ambient noise helps me get into the zone

Sounds like a DIY version of the Hawthorne effect - you just need to occasionally change your environment, it doesn't matter what to, because change itself is stimulating.

I just have to disagree here. I learned to code in a Starbucks in New York City, totally immersed in my computer for hours on end every day for a summer, years ago. Today I work from them whenever I possibly can, even if this means Zipcar'ing it. I like the atmosphere of Starbucks, and in general I like being surrounded by activity. Coffee shop + headphones = my most productive; yes, doing good work.

Like melling said, this looks like it goes down under "there's no one right answer." You experience was obviously different. But it's definitely the place where I get in the zone the quickest, do the best work the fastest, and in general are the most happy.

This comes down to there is no one definitive answer. I've been very effective in coffee shops and in my dedicated space. The change is good and can help with creativity and energy. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop because I know that I'll be there for 2 or 3 hours and I'm motivated to getting something done in that time.

To each his own. Some tasks I find (writing is one of them) are best done in a coffee shop. Somehow I find it easier to "zone out" the hustle and movement and focus in coffee shops, while a more silent and still environment makes me very restless and leads to jumping around between tasks.

There are other tasks that I prefer to do at my desk, with loud music

>I realize that this isn't the same experience as others, but I still often want to ask them, "Did you really get done what you wanted to get done in the coffee shop?"

Interesting fact: yes, I actually do. Last couple of weeks, I started putting in quite a lot of hours besides the 9-5 grind and quite frankly, I tallied up about 38 hours of solid good work. Most of these hours were at spent at many of close-by coffee shops.

In contrast, work at home suffers because of my apartment size and total lack of personal isolation from my family. The chaos and noise in a coffee shop or on the street is very easy to tune out in comparison to someone asking questions every few minutes.

This might be attributed in part to studying long hours in very busy environments while at school.

In contrast, work at home suffers because of my apartment size and total lack of personal isolation from my family. The chaos and noise in a coffee shop or on the street is very easy to tune out in comparison to someone asking questions every few minutes.

I think this is the critical factor for me. If I'm at home, there are still people coming and going all day, and they're people I know who may at some point be looking for my attention[1]. At the coffee shop, the only person who expects to interact with me is behind the counter.

1 - This is probably not going to be everyone else's experience. I am a student, and my house is across the streets from campus.

I think the important part is that, if you have telecommuting in place, you can choose. Some days I need quiet, some days I need caffeine, some days I feel like being around activity, and some days I really need to talk to someone in the offices.

But where I work essentially doesn't "do" telecommuting, except in odd circumstances. So I don't have the choice. So some days I'm drained in-office when I could be energized elsewhere. I use their desks. I sit at the same chair. I can't walk-and-code, I can't have random-amenity-X, and I'm surrounded by either oppressive silence + keyboard clicking or the occasional partial conversation.

It's their choice, but I'm the one who's losing the most because of it.

>> It's their choice, but I'm the one who's losing the most because of it.

Surely this is a case of "it's their loss"? If your employer does not choose to see the benefits of flexible working arrangements then they are the ones that lose, both in lost productivity and being unable to keep top staff.

It will be eventually, but not yet. They're growing quickly enough they just need more brute force, currently.

I would agree with this. While my other comment distinguished between different kinds/volumes of "ambient environment", in total I find I don't -- can't -- reach the depth of thought that your descriptions describes and that I (sometimes) experience myself in the same kind of setting.

Although, sometimes what I may need for a bit is more "breadth" if also less depth. The occasional cafe can actually be quite beneficial to a balanced personal philosophy.

I guess it's like the coffee. One cup is good. Three, and I start to get pretty jittery. ;-)

ADDENDUM: Two hours is about my max, even in an "optimal" cafe. Sometimes three. After that, walking out the door to relative silence is a blessed relief.

Interesting. Fwiw, my best work has actually been done standing at a terminal in the data center, coding to the hum of big iron (or the lots of little iron that passes for it these days). And that was even before I was aware of the health benefits of standing desks. That's the one thing I really miss about working for a big company with its own datacenter, now everything is just in the cloud somewhere.

My best learning/studying, in the library or bookstore. There's something about being in an environment where most everyone is focusing and concentrating that makes it easier to get into Flow.

I also find it difficult to get certain kinds of work done in a coffee shop or other public place. I always seem to get this feeling that people are watching over my shoulder, despite the fact that nobody actually is. That feeling is somewhat unsettling, and makes it difficult for me to concentrate on things like code.

So, for me at least, coffee shop time is 'thinking' time. Time to enjoy the brew, do the crossword, let the mind go wild, and write down notes of ideas that pop into my head.

I have always found a coffeeshop to be very hard to get in the zone with unless there's some sort of good band playing to help me make the zone shift.

I'm too distractable, and the chairs are not comfortable for serious thinking.

I am probably the last person on HN to realize this. I've been working at home for ages (like since Hanson was still a popular band), and I'm really finding out how wacky the long term psychological effects are.

Spending too much time at home makes me more negative about everything. In particular, I'm starting to wonder if working from my home office makes me a little too pessimistic about my business and less willing to take risks. I feel pretty crabby about work when I'm working from my home desk, but as this article points out, working at a coffee shop makes my work seem cooler. That shift in attitude is a revelation both for productivity and creativity.

I've been working from home for a dozen years and I love it. The past six years have been spent working at night (I'm a night-owl, anyway). I love it. The faux socialization (and interruptions, conflicts, inanity, politics, etc) are too often highly overrated. I'll take my solitude, any day. It may mean that I seldom see the sun and go out in public even less frequently than that, but I'll take that over the regular rat race, any day. Plus, all the people I would work with in my division are spread across the planet, anyway. Even if I worked at the office, I would be twelve hundred miles away from the closest colleague who does what I do.

I find that the reward of more free time (no commute, work when I'm most productive, no hassle about presentation, no noise or inanity, etc) outweighs absolutely everything else. I have turned down far more lucrative offers within and outside of the same company over the years, simply because the benefit of working from home is so extraordinarily appealing to me. A few years ago, I turned down a position that would have involved a 50% increase in salary, because it would have meant going to an office 8-5 five days a week. (And when you figure in commute and getting ready in the morning, it's more like 6am-6pm).

I have occasionally thought that the whole public space thing - were I could be alone, but not - may be appealing. I have always turned it down, however, because all of the people I know have negative connotations to guys in coffee shops or cafes with their laptops and cell phones. They associate a guy at the coffee shop doing work with the guy who stands in public with a cell phone (that probably isn't even on) yelling "buy! sell! buy!" to make himself look important. I'd probably then spend all my time being self-conscious about whether everyone around me is just looking at me like I'm some pretentious asshole, even though I'm just a guy wanting to have some tenuous connection with the rest of the human race while I do my daily thing.

My theory is that by opening up myself to the possibility of meeting a woman keeps me on my toes and harnesses my darwinian energy which I then channel into my work. Working at home in my underwear doesn't create this psychological situation.

If you are in the Bay Area check out Hacker Dojo in Mountain View. If you want, you can think of it as a coffee shop with

1) Free coffee. Open 24 hours.

2) Screens you can hook up if needed.

3) Other coffee drinkers who also hack.

4) Very fast internet connection.

5) Happy hour on Friday, when you need to lose the caffeine edge.

Guests are welcome. There is a box for voluntary suggested donation. Membership is $100 per month. Remember the "no free cup of coffee" theorem. :)

I love taking a break from home working and hitting a coffee shop. For me, it's just a way to improve my mood. Similarly, I'll break out the lawn chair and sit outside to work -- that is just as effective emotionally, but not quite as practical (glare, no real table, etc.)

My only gripe with coffee shops is the bathroom break. No way am I leaving a $2000 laptop on a desk unattended, but after a few cups of anything, you have to go. Sometimes I'll ask someone to watch it for me, but if there's no one who's around consistently or who seems trustworthy, this can't always work. So I end up packing up my shit then unpacking it again...

I guess it depends on the kind of place in which you work, but I leave mine (screen locked) at my table all the time.

Alternatively: get a lighter laptop and set it so you can close it without putting it to sleep; then you can take it with you easily. You don't need to pack everything up; the resale value of an unattended power adapter is quite low.

I agree with working in restaurants. The coffee shops near me that have wifi are full of telecommuters gaming for the tables with power outlets. For some reason I find it way more distracting to be surrounded by other remote employees oogling their laptops than I do people eating or drinking coffee.

In my area there are a few restaraunt/bars however that have great wifi, few remote employees, food that isn't scones, and better music. Also, they're completely dead in between meal times so no one minds if I hang out from noon to 4pm.

Working at coffee shops, for some reason, just feels really great. I learned calculus in coffee shops, and I really enjoy coding in them now. I hadn't thought of restaurants - that was a good idea about showing up in the early afternoon, when they won't need the table for a while.

I do have a personal rule - no being a coffee shop mooch. I make sure I buy something every now and then if I'm going to sit there for hours.

Diners are also a pretty excellent place to work. Even staid, corporate ones actually do the trick for me, but places with a bit of character tend to be more fun.

I actually think a coffee shop culture may be a key component to a creative environment. I attended UC San Diego as an undergrad, and while it has some wonderful qualities, I think it is missing the coffee shop scene you get at an urban campus (Berkeley and Washington are a couple of good west coast examples), where there's a seamless transition from the university to the coffee shops immediately next to it. Don't get me wrong, the coffee shops in the beach towns around San Diego are pretty great, and full of students studying, but when you surround a university with them, you get a kind of magic.

> ...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.

This reminds me of http://lesswrong.com/lw/2qv/antiakrasia_remote_monitoring_ex... - 2 guys using VNC to simulate the patrons of the coffee shop. You can't help but feel that someone might be watching & judging you, and that prods you into doing something more creditable.

Why does it work? My own opinion is that it's a hack on hyperbolic discounting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperbolic_discounting): we are wired to over-value short-term gratification, so small penalties or shifts in difficulty can put our desires back in whack to where they should rationally be.

Hence, melatonin can help you maintain the right sleep schedule & not stay up on HN all night because it makes you sleepy (http://www.gwern.net/Melatonin.html#self-discipline); but this perspective cuts both ways - if you can make yourself do things with small shifts in penalties/rewards, small shifts in penalties/rewards can stop you from doing things, hence you should 'beware trivial inconveniences' (http://lesswrong.com/lw/f1/beware_trivial_inconveniences/).

I like the theory they posit about the social expectation to look busy.

It's why I often take a walk down to the university library to work. There's a long-standing social expectation that when you go to the library, you're there to do serious things and be productive. You're not going there to yak with your friends on IM, read HN, or surf Reddit for funny cat pictures, which is what I will invariably find myself doing if I were at home. So I put my head down and get to work!

Going to the library to work is one way I can find the motivation to still put in 5 hours on a side project even after putting in an 8 hour work day. I sit down at a table there and can immediately get traction on my projects.

It doesn't hurt either that the library is a few blocks from my house, is open until 1 AM, and sells good coffee. I am going to have to find another good nearby place that's open late though because the library is only open 8-5 in the summer.

I completely agree with this article. My problem is sacrificing my two glorious 24" monitors for a tiny laptop screen. I feel the sacrificed real estate really bites into the productivity gains of being in a place like a coffee shop.

Some company recently announced a portable monitor. It was kind of ridiculously overpriced, but in absolute terms readily affordable, and apparently quite transportable. The protective case flips down somehow to become the stand. Dimensions were about on par with having another 14" or 15" laptop screen. Sorry I don't have the reference at hand.

I'm not sure if I just have a different perspective about this than most people, but in my opinion you can easily overdo the whole office at the coffee shop thing. If a spot I stopped at for a quick chat with someone or a bit of coffee suddenly started having folks with laptops + extra monitors, I'd be pretty unhappy.

yeah and a space that specialized in that setup becomes one of those coworking spaces and in many ways it brings you right back to square one.

If I hit a wall I have to change things up. If I'm not getting $#!7 done in the office, I go to a cafe. Productivity at a cafe is never as high, but I chock that up to screen real estate. One monitor for Eclipse and one monitor for docs. Otherwise I'm wasting time flipping.

I think you have a great point in highlighting that the cafés are great - as a fall-back. Ideally, you should have somewhere better to get more done, but if you don't, or if it just doesn't work that day, everyone should have a go-to place.

Always have back-ups; that includes work places.

Perhaps it's because I'm introverted, but I have always had the exact opposite reaction. Before I could afford to have Internet at my house, I had to use coffee shops to get work done online, and it was almost unbearable. The noise was a constant distraction, the smell of roasted coffee quickly became something I couldn't stand, and most of all, I hated being bunched up against everyone else. I suppose each experience will be different, but now that I've had the pleasure of working at home, I wouldn't want to go back if I had a choice.

Coffee shops are very different from each other. You may just not have managed to find one that works for you.

I would also not want to stay in a place that matches your description, but I'd be interested in a place that deals with the critique points.

I am just noticing this. I currently work in a semi-cramped office with two other guys, but it's connected to a modern steel/glass high-rise building designed for academic research. It has a gorgeous, large cafeteria on the second floor. It's pleasant enough and there's enough activity during the morning and afternoon that it's a perfect place to work. Usually there are about 5-10 people using the cafeteria to work at any given time, plus there are lounge chairs situated at various points in the nearby hallways that can work as well.

I am less likely to get distracted with stupid internet crap when I'm in the public space. I find it relaxing, and I don't have the nagging feeling that by sitting at my office desk chair I'm wasting my life. Often those feelings are worth it all by themselves, even if there's no productivity change.

However, there are definitely distractions, and I find that I'm usually unable to get fully focused in a public space. I am often drawn to someone walking by or annoyed by a random smell. For difficult technical work, silence and peace are usually more conducive, as well as my multi-monitor setup and fast, wired ethernet connections.

But for stuff like reading email, and correspondence, knocking minor items off your todo list, and defeating a procrastination block, being in a public space seems to help a lot.

I need it to be fairly quiet to code with few distractions. Yet many of my friends have to listen to loud music or they can't write code at all. It may be ADD but it seems they need to distract a part of their brain to be able to concentrate on the task.

Though I haven't much experience with them coworking spaces are much better because you can bounce ideas off other developers. I think there's a commaraderie as well that enhances the experience for me.

There is an interesting social accountability aspect to working in a coffee shop, for me at least.

I work best with something playing in the background. A movie, some futurama, some always sunny in philadelphia, etc. Or I work best with 30-40 minutes of code code code code followed by a few minutes of playing minecraft, or reddit, or facebook, or something, followed by more coding.

When I'm at "work", in my office, I can't really just zone out and play futurama on one of my monitors. That would be totally inappropriate, and I would probably get called out on it by one of my coworkers.

And if I'm at home, I have the dog wanting to play, or the roomate wanting to go out, or a really awesome stereo begging to be played with, or a garage full of DIY projects...

The coffee shop is right in the butter zone. I would never sit there for 8 hours watching Futurama, but I don't feel bad if I watch a bit of it. The pressure to not look like an idiot is enough to keep me focused, and the freedom to do whatever I want helps keep me relaxed.

It's perfect. This is made better by the fact that my local coffee shop has nice little works-spaces for people to use.

(If you're a Phoenician, the coffee shop I'm talking about is Xtreme Bean in Tempe)

"My headphones, they saved my life"

I work at a larger company, on a team with ~30 devs, my role is less about how much code I produce personally, and more about how I help the entire team produce code.

However, there are still days when what matters is me getting shit done - when those days come I pull on a pair of headphones (decent DJ cans) and put my entire music collection on random (which is less "random" than I'd like, but HN already knows that) - volume set to the lowest audible level.

This works for me: 1) the headphones are a subtle (and therefore more effective) Do-Not-Disturb sign; 2) the ambient conversations are eliminated (which is why DJ cans with high passive noise reduction are better); 3) It helps shrink the world down to the space of me and the problem to be solved.

Changing my environment also works: shutting an office door (if you have one); working in a conference room; cafeteria; coffee shop; park; library; at home at the kitchen counter - but all of those require that I _visibly_ isolate myself from the team, the headphones are more like a psychological invisibility cloak or SEP field.

I practically have my coffee shop productivity down to a science. I have certain places for brainstorming, certain places for when I want some quiet & solitude, & certain places for when I want to feel relaxed vs. focused. I've written a good deal of my book at a very well-featured Whole Foods in Chicago.

I also meet up with other entrepreneurs at a coffee shop every Wednesday. It's great for exchanging ideas, or just having someone to watch your laptop while you go to the bathroom: http://jellychicago.com

When I lived in SF, I started compiling information on various coffee shops, based upon how good they were to work at. I kept track of if they had open outlets, and how the staff acted towards people on laptops. It might be a bit out of date, but here it is: http://moworking.pbworks.com/w/page/10316102/San-Francisco-B...

Perhaps if more restaurants or bars had wifi I too would work at them.

It is a little weird that despite the assertion that this arrangement is such a productivity multiplier, many people prefer to be concerned about WiFi availability rather than spend the ~$50/month for a cell modem enabling them to make the world their cafe.

Luckily Hemingway brought paper and a pen with him.

I read in Esquire or Wired or somewhere (I'm having trouble finding the source online) that smells change our perception of time. Baby powder slows down time for us. Coffee beans speed it up. Perhaps we frequent coffee shops to get work done, because we want the work or workday to get done faster.

I think whether you work best in a one kind of ambient atmosphere versus another (a place of social interactions versus a place of quiet) depends on whether you are an introvert or an extrovert.

Introverts and extroverts are equally able to function and enjoy both environments, but an introvert has to "turn it on" in a social atmosphere, and therefore needs quiet alone time to recharge his batteries. An extrovert is the opposite; he has to "zone himself in" to make use of quiet alone time, and needs social time to recharge his batteries.

I think extroverts are the people who enjoy the ambience of the coffee shop, drawing energy from the hustle and bustle around them. Introverts find this more taxing; they're just as able to do work, but they'd probably be more productive in a quiet study room.

I recently went on our company retreat and spent 7 days in the Spanish countryside.

The last 2 days of the trip, we were in Barcelona.

While the entire trip was productive for important reasons (Wildbit is an entirely distributed and international team and spending social time with the team was extremely valuable and enjoyable), I found more inspiration and motivation from the couple of days in the city compared to the peacefulness of the countryside.

I wrote more about the experience here:


Of note: "Noisy environments provide sort of a filter to cut through the noise in my head. Sort of like panning for gold, if everything goes well, all of the cruft fades away and I’m left with some nugget of gold."

Ive been working from home since late 2006 until early 2011. I was pretty happy with it despite always having the feeling of not getting enough done.

I now work in an office in my own startup and simply love it. Conversations with other engineers, the whole energy of people working on the same thing in the same room and actually being able to differentiate between work and being at home are things i really really love right now.

I now have to commute 20min (one way) by car, but i dont really care. Sitting at home all the time and having your highlight of the day being a walk to the grocery store is depressing after several years ;)

I wouldnt want to work in a coffeeshop though, maybe as a writer, but as an engineer i need my large screens, comfy chair and big desk.

I've tried working outside the office. Usually I can get intensive work done in short bursts, but it's too tempting to go take a walk and set up your temporary office in some other location for a while. "You've been in this cafe for too long, you should go to the library... this library is dark and ugly, why not go sit on a bench outside? This bench isn't really comfortable and the screen is too glary... but hey, it's time for lunch and there's a really great place only twenty minutes' walk away..." Finally I get to the end of the day and figure out I've done about four good twenty-minute periods of work and had a really nice stroll in the Botanical Gardens.

I've tried finding something similar in my (European) country, too. Unfortunately, we don't have any Starbucks, and I find the silence in libraries to be too loud for my taste.

I've found two "eh" coffee shops, but one's always crowded and has poor ventilation, and the other one cranks up the music as if to scare people into only buying take-away, while the coffee-grinder or blender makes it impossible to get anything done on the same floor.

I've actually considered doing a start-up coffee shop to address this very thing, but it's to big an undertaking at the moment. And I'd rather do it in a country that seems to respect that culture already, which renders the idea somewhat moot.

"I've found two 'eh' coffee shops, but one's always crowded and has poor ventilation, and the other one cranks up the music as if to scare people into only buying take-away, while the coffee-grinder or blender makes it impossible to get anything done on the same floor."

Well guess what Starbucks is? The combination of these two.

Well maybe only in the countries where I frequent Starbucks... ie. wherever there are no decent "indie cafes" to speak of.

Plenty of businesses do quite well serving non-majority segments of the market. Think immigrant neighborhoods in larger cities.

Personally, I think a sandwich shop like Pret A Manger would do quite well in Berlin, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that proper sandwiches are nearly unheard of in Germany. You don't need everybody. You just need enough people, people who want something that only you are offering.

I'd speculate that most people are more effective when they feel observed and having strangers around you creates that situation.

Now coming to think about it I think this is why they had posters of the leader in "1984" everywhere.

Then I'm not most people. It's exactly reverse for me. Way less effective when I feel observed. Luckily I don't feel observed in a coffee shop much, most of the time. Whenever I do, I decide to "observe back" and notice that no-one was observing anyway.

I love being the "typical apple hipster" at the coffee shop or bookstore or panera with my macbook open and textmate filling my screen.

You know what's boring? Track practice for 9 year olds, but it is a great time to sit and code. I churn out so much code while those little legs move around the track.

I just love not working in the house. It's crazy since I absolutely love looking at how people have their home offices setup on sites like wherewedowhatwedo.com and lifehacker's featured workspaces. forgot about http://www.deskography.org/

I find this works for me when i working on "output" related tasks..such as assignments, projects (ie creating something).

However when I am trying to learn/study and retain information I find I need a mostly quiet area.

Anyone know a good mp3/ogg of coffeeshop sounds? That might be entertaining to play on headphones to pretend that you are at a coffee house.

Better yet if a coffee shop sets up an audio stream :)

Here is one I recorded years ago:


Only two minutes, though. :-[

I used to be kind of into recording "spaces." My favorite was a movie theater lobby, very tall and echo-y.

FWIW, parts of Windows Server 2003 were written at Starbucks ;)

My take on this is that there's a little part of my brain that wants (nay, needs) to be distracted so that I can actually get on with working. It can be a TV in the next room, a movie or video game soundtrack pumping in my headphones, or a coffee shop full of people and white noise. If that part of my brain isn't distracted by these things, it interrupts the main thread and I find myself lost in HN, my feeds, the BBC website… anywhere but my work.

I'm surprised. 81 comments in and nobody commented on the real reason why you work best in the coffee shop: that's where all the hot people are.

You don't go there to work. You go there to look busy while you people watch and maybe- just maybe, get somebody's attention. As a result, you get a lot of work done, because you can only surf idly for so long alone.

Its like the gym, except more fattening.


I never liked working at coffee shops when I was working for myself. For me the best place to work is at home. Working at home can be very difficult but if you have the discipline and a quiet work space it can be very productive.

Definitely don't have a TV in the same room as you work. Also, playing music with headphones is great to get in the "zone."

At both the office and home distractions abound. Different distractions, and there's generally less at home, but they're the types of distractions I either can or need to engage with.

At a coffeeshop there are distractions, but they generally aren't ones I can or feel compelled to engage with. For me, it's easier to focus on the task at hand.

Just needs to be a clean and well-lighted place.

plus there's an endless supply of coffee; that does wonders for productivity.

When working at home, I find it a nice break walking over to the coffee maker or teapot to make myself a fresh cup.

I think that many of the points hint at it, but don't directly address the fact that the work space is inherently temporary. If I were to get up right now and go use one of our lab bench computers I'd be getting more done even though its not 20 feet away from my desk. Nothing else would change, anyone who came to or called my desk would still get to me, it wouldn't change the hour I leave. I think our designated workspaces can get us into a rut that leads to less productivity.

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