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
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.
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.
Maybe there is a general principle of physical novelty stimulating or "prepping" the brain for intellectual work. Just speculation, though...
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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."
"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."
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.
I have a real hard time getting focused unless there is some sort of music playing.
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.
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.
There are other tasks that I prefer to do at my desk, with loud music
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'm too distractable, and the chairs are not comfortable for serious thinking.
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 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.
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. :)
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...
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.
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.
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.
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/).
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.
Amazon Affiliate Link:
Always have back-ups; that includes work places.
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 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.
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.
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)
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 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...
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.
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.
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:
"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."
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 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.
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.
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.
Now coming to think about it I think this is why they had posters of the leader in "1984" everywhere.
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/
However when I am trying to learn/study and retain information I find I need a mostly quiet area.
Better yet if a coffee shop sets up an audio stream :)
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.
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.
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 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.