One of the more popular things to do nowadays is to work from a coffee shop or cafe. For knowledge workers in particular, it can be a surprisingly effective way to get serious creative work done. For those who haven’t tried it yet, hopefully this article will give you some insight into how it can be done effectively.
Not too long ago, I went through a season where I was trying to finish writing my first book. Having a full-time job and a family at home, I used coffee shops as my writing sanctuary for awhile. I would wake up early every morning and go to a coffee shop to get some writing in before heading in to the office. Working from coffee shops provided me the space I needed to focus on and complete a major project, and I’d recommend it for just about anyone. Whether you are a remote worker who’s looking for a little more human contact or someone who’s working on a side hustle, working from coffee shops and cafes can be a great creative asset – IF you know how to leverage it effectively.
Why would you want to work from a coffee shop or cafe anyway?
One of the many things people covet about working remotely is the ability to skip the commute and just stay home. On the surface, paying for an over-priced cup of coffee only to fight for a spot so sit and the right to use unreliable wifi doesn’t sound like it’d be worth the hassle. But it turns out there are a couple major benefits that come with working from cafes and coffee shops.
#1: The Background Noise Makes You More Creative
Research indicates that moderate background noise (like that found in coffee shops) can actually improve your ability to come up with creative ideas. According to studies done by the University of British Columbia and the University of Virginia, the moderate noise distraction may actually aid in abstract thinking.
In fact, the coffee shop environment has proven so effective that there is actually an online app that allows you to simulate the sounds of a bustling cafe wherever you are. The app is called Coffitivity, and there’s both a free and premium tier if you wanted to check it out for yourself.
#2: A Change of Pace
It would be great if we could just summon the ability to focus and do deep work whenever and wherever we want, but even the most creative people frequently hit a wall. When this happens, changing your work environment is an effective strategy to help get your creative juices flowing again. Sometimes just changing up your scenery can be enough to get you unstuck.
A number of creative people build in regular trips to coffee shops and cafes as part of their regular rotation. There’s a great podcast episode where CPG Grey of YouTube fame and Mike Hurley (co-founder of the Relay FM podcast network) discuss work environments and some of the routines that CPG Grey uses to get creative work done.
While working from coffee shops and cafes can be stimulating and productive, there are also some unique challenges that they represent.
Going to the Restroom
The simplest solution is if you have friends around, have them watch your stuff. And if you’ve developed relationships with the baristas and staff, they may also offer to keep an eye on your stuff for you. But if you are alone at a shop that you don’t frequent very often, you can do one of two things:
- Pack up your things and take them with you – This is the safest option. You may lose your place, but it is better than losing your laptop. While it’s not likely, it does happen.
- Take your chances – If you decide you don’t want to pack up your stuff every time you go to the bathroom, it will probably be ok to leave your gear for a very short period of time. I usually try to find a spot past the bathrooms in the far corner of the cafe or coffee shop. That way, if I have to go the bathroom I can do so quickly and if anyone were to try to make off with my stuff they would have to walk right past me on their way out.
I really only recommend the latter at places that you really know and trust. In general, it is safer to pack everything up and make sure it’s with you at all times.
Cafes are usually quite relaxed and the noise is usually low-to-moderate. But every now and then there’s that couple or group of people who are talking a little bit too loudly, or inappropriately playing something on their laptop speakers.
The easiest way to protect yourself against this is to invest in quality noise-cancelling headphones. Good noise-cancelling headphones (like my Bose QC35s) allow me to essentially create a private office anywhere, any time. They are expensive, but I consider it an investment because they really do allow me to control my environment to a degree that I really didn’t think was possible in public places. In my opinion, the ability to instantly “close my office door” is well worth the price.
The Essential Gear for Working Productively at Cafes and Coffee Shops
To work productively from a cafe (or any other location that isn’t your regular work setup) you need the right tools. Here’s some of the things you may need:
- Device to get your work done – While this has traditionally been a laptop, there are other devices that actually make it even easier to get work done on the go. My MacBook Pro is almost always with me, but my absolute favorite mobile device is a 9.7-inch iPad Pro with a Logitech Create Keyboard case. The Logitech Create is significantly better than the Apple Smart Keyboard, in my opinion. The keys actually feel like real keys, which makes it significantly easier to get writing done. The Logitech Create also has a holder for an Apple Pencil, which is very handy if you rely on that to annotate and draw anything as part of your normal workflow.
- Power adaptor – Nothing is worse than getting to your favorite coffee shop, ordering your favorite drink, and sitting down for a long work session – and then realizing that your battery is dead. I actually bought an extra MacBook charger that I keep in my backpack so I never have to think about whether I remembered to pack it. It wasn’t cheap, but the peace of mind that gives me is worth it. Depending on your device though, you may not need this. For example, my iPad Pro battery lasts much longer than my average work day. So if you really want flexibility and portability (and you don’t need platform specific apps), you may want to try working from a tablet like the iPad Pro. Because you won’t need a power adapter, you also won’t need to worry about trying to secure a spot near an outlet.
- Noise-cancelling headphones – Coffee shops can be noisy places, and your Apple EarPods are not going to cut if you intend to get some serious work done. You need something with active noise-cancelling that can drown out the guy trying to make sales calls behind you or the moms’ group with their screaming two-year-olds. We recommend the Bose QC 25s (or if you want the wireless version, the QC35s). While audiophiles may debate the quality of the sound that comes from a pair of Bose headphones, their noise-cancelling is second-to-none. I personally own the QC35s, and the noise canceling is so good that sometimes I’ll put the headphones on and not actually listen to anything because I just need them to drown out the background noise. Yes, they really are that good. And the QC35s also have a built-in battery that lasts a very long time (they say 20 hours, I think you can get more than that.)
- A good travel bag – If you’re going to work on the go, you’ll want a bag that keeps all your stuff safe and secure. The best travel bags maintain a slim profile while still allowing you to pack them full of everything that you need. For example, I personally use a Timbuk2 Command backpack that has a separate (felt-lined) sleeve for my MacBook as well as a space for my iPad Pro, and compartments and pockets for all my accessories. Here’s a list of everything that I keep in my bag:
- Bose QC35s (I can’t rave enough about it)
- Moleskine notebook
- Colored pens (I like to sketchnote)
- AC adapter for my MacBook
- Apple AirPods (for Skype calls)
- Spare power brick for USB and Lightning devices
- Joby iPhone tripod
- In-ear monitors
- Protective case for loose papers
- Jaybird X2 (my sport headphones, for when I go to the gym)
- Whatever book I happen to be reading at the moment
That’s right, I usually have 3-4 pairs of headphones with me at any given time. I always pack my bag the night before, so that it’s ready to go when I get up in the morning. That way, I don’t have to double-check anything – I can just grab it on my way out of the house and know that I’m ready to take on the day.
5 Quick Tips for Picking the Right Cafe
When you decide to work from a cafe or coffee shop, usually it is because you want a change of pace or scenery. The energy they provide can actually help you get work done, but you do give up a lot of the control you have over how you set up your work environment. There are a lot of things that make a particular cafe a suitable work environment, and you should take these into consideration before you decide to set up shop:
- Location, Location, Location – Ideally you want somewhere close by – the closer the better. Your definition of close may vary based on where you live. For example, close for Thanh (who lives in Austin, TX) is walking 30 seconds. You can’t go more than 2 blocks without finding a coffee shop downtown. But where I live (Neenah, WI), things are much more spread out. There are still some great coffee shops in the area, but they are all at least a 10-minute drive from where I live. The principle is simple: the less time you spend traveling, the more time you have to get actual work done.
- Hours – Especially if you are using the shop to work on your side hustle, make sure you know the hours before you show up. While many coffee shops open early, some I’ve visited don’t open until after 8am – after most people get to the office. If you’re like me and trying to work on your side hustle before work, that’s not going to cut it for you. Likewise, many coffee shops close after normal business hours. You don’t want to go out of your way to go to a coffee shop or cafe to get work done, only to find out that they close shortly after you get there. You need to identify the hours of operation before you travel. If you require time after work or on weekends, it may significantly limit the options available to you.
- Wifi – This is quickly becoming a necessity, but fortunately it’s also widely available. Very few cafes and coffee shops do not have wifi these days. However, they do have varying rules and regulations surrounding use. Some coffee shops have open wifi and are very tolerant or welcoming of people who camp out for long periods to get work done, but others require temporary access codes that are limited based on time or bandwidth. You don’t want to plan on being gone all afternoon only to find out that you can only get 60 minutes of free wifi at your local shop. Make sure that the place you choose can support your wifi needs.
- Power – Shops that invite or welcome people working for longer periods will often strategically place power outlets near booths or tables as they know this is a need for many workers. If you bring your laptop, you’ll probably need to find a place that has easy access to power. However, if you decide to use something more portable with a longer-lasting battery (like my precious iPad Pro), this will often give you more flexibility in this area and you won’t be reliant on being plugged in.
- Tables/Workspace – You need to pick a coffee shop or cafe that has a good space for you to set up shop and get some work done. Some cafes offer couches arranged in such a way to make it easy to interact with other guests, but if you want to get work done then this setup isn’t ideal. You’ll want to look for a space that has lots of tables or workspace where you can stay somewhat secluded and has enough space for your stuff. It’s easy to get distracted because there’s usually a lot going on, so the further you can remove yourself from the activity, the better.
4 Things to Know for Basic Cafe Etiquette
Once you have your stuff packed up and you’ve picked out where you’re going to go, it’s time to get to work. But coffee shops and cafes are public places, and as such, there are certain unwritten rules regarding etiquette that you should try to follow. Here are 4 basic tips:
- Buy something to drink, even if it’s just a juice or bottle of water – Don’t show up to monopolize wifi bandwidth if you aren’t going to buy anything. Support the business you’ve decided to visit, and make sure you buy something to drink. Don’t be that guy.
- Drink slowly – When you’re done, it’s fine to continue working for another hour or so before buying another drink. Think of it as a business expense for working in a nice environment. But don’t buy a single cup of coffee and then monopolize a booth for the next 4 hours.
- Get to know the baristas and cafe staff – Most places are more likely to try and accommodate you if they know who you are what you’re doing. One coffee shop that I frequent actually goes out of their way to create a quiet space for me to work when they see me come in. They even sometimes give me free drinks because I give them consistent business. Treat your baristas well and they will reciprocate (leave a tip).
- Use common sense – It should go without saying, but be courteous to others. This is a public business, not your private office. Turn off your notifications. And don’t play loud music over your laptop speakers – use some headphones.
5 Quick Productivity Tips
- The coffee shop environment is the perfect place to implement the Pomodoro method to get your work done. Set a 25-minute timer and get to work on your task, then take a 5 minute break to immerse yourself in the atmosphere or get up and walk around a bit before sitting down for another work session. A great Mac app for implementing the Pomodoro method is Vitamin-R, which also gives you detailed focus statistics in addition to helping you overcome procrastination.
- Try to plan your tasks accordingly. For example, don’t plan on attending a webinar or doing any online task that requires a strong, consistent internet connection. Since most coffee shops and cafes don’t bother paying for strong internet, it’s very easy for someone else to eat up the bandwidth leaving you incapable of getting online work done. You never know what the guy in the corner is uploading or downloading, but if you can select work that isn’t broadband-dependent (like writing, for example) you limit the possibility of your mobile office causing you to get stuck.
- If you’re going to try and do a Skype call, you’ll want to use an app called Shush. Shush is a Mac utility that allows you create a cough button that mutes your microphone. Where it really shines is when you switch it from Push-to-Mute to Push-to-Talk. This allows you to mute everything except when you need to speak, so people on the other end of the call don’t have to listen to all the background noise throughout the entire call. It’s a couple dollars, but an essential tool if for internet communication in a noisy environment.
- If you’re going to use the internet, make sure that you use a VPN to protect yourself on unsecured networks (which most coffee shops are). There are many options available, but we recommend Cloak because it is incredibly easy to set up and automatically secures connection when you connect to a public network.
- If you’re lucky enough to have the space, try using multiple devices. I do this occasionally with my iPad & MacBook Pro using an awesome app called Duet, which turns your iPad into a second display. A mobile dual-monitor setup? It’s possible (and as awesome as it sounds). You might get a few funny looks, but not as many as this guy who brings his whole desktop into the local Starbucks.
Working from cafes or coffee shops can be surprisingly effective – all you need is a little planning, some ground rules for what you are going to do there and then some guidelines for how to work while you’re there.
I went through a season where I was trying to finish writing my first book. Having a full-time job and a family at home, I used coffee shops as my writing sanctuary for awhile. I would wake up early every morning and go to a coffee shop to get some writing in before heading in to the office
I like that you pointed out that a number of creative people build in regular trips to coffee shops and cafes as part of their regular rotation. I have to write a pretty major paper for school and I can never focus when I’m at home. I think going to a cute breakfast coffee bar would help me because I could eat while working on my paper and the environments in those places always seem to help me work better.
Thanks for these tips for getting work done. I’m glad that you mentioned it could be good to have some thick, noise-cancelling headphones. It seems like a good way to drown out external noise to focus your attention where you need it to be.
The headphones also set an expectation for people that you can’t be interrupted with your work. :) We’re happy to know that you like the blog.
Lately, in my hometown, a lot of coffee shops started forbidding laptops and iPads. The idea behind this is that they’re fed up with people who use their tables for hours, but only buy the cheapest item on the menu. I guess they don’t really see these people as customers.
For a change, I like to use Coffitivity even when I’m at work, in the office..
Thanks for the tip that background noise makes you more creative in your work. You also mentioned that there is even an app that simulates a coffee shop atmosphere. I think it’s a good idea to do your work at a coffee shop so that you also have access to caffeine!
I am sure many of us have thought that there is nothing better than working from a coffee shop: soft and nice jazz music in the background and a glorious cappuccino. Well, you are right, the reality is very different. Cafes are often noisy and busy.
Your Basic Cafe Etiquette list couldn’t be more accurate.
Shared this post with a lot of people – i think it has some amazing tips for working from coffee shops and I couldn’t have put any of it better myself! Thanks for writing this!
The coffee shops where I live are noisy and play loud background music to cover up node that people make. Even the best noise canceling headphones cannot block it.
When I travel to other cities, I can often find a good quiet cafe where they don’t glare at you if you been sitting more than 5 minutes.
Coffee shops where I live are basically fast food shops, they want you in and out as quickly as possible to keep the volume of customer traffic up, which helps sales.
If you are stuck in your home office working in a cafe is a great idea, you’ll appreciate the noise, people and overall change of sight, been stuck in my home office since 2011.
Thank you for this fabulous reminder of one of the best creative strategies ever – get out but keep working! Did exactly that this morning and unleashed a whole raft of previously unlocked ideas.
In picking the cafe, for me it’s all about choosing one with a positive atmosphere and enough space to spread out. And excellent coffee, of course :)
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Sweet article guys! I do love working out of cafes from time to time, there is something fun and productive about being in a social environment with people around, even if I’m just focusing on getting stuff done.
Quick question: Do you know any AE-approved apps for finding coffee shops in different cities, particularly ones with good internet?
Cheers from Stockholm – Jesse
Not off the top of my head. Maybe Yelp in the US?
I’ve never been a fan of working at cafes, but am starting to realise there are certain tasks that you can get done just as efficiently (if not more so) at a cafe – you just need to identify what they are and then have a bit of a plan for what you want to achieve before you leave the house.
I agree. For anything that needs laser-like focus I tend to do those at home, but anything else is fair game. I especially like clearing email inboxes at cafes.
Good points. I can recommend using an university library as an alternative. At least in Germany they usually have work rooms where a lot of students are working at the same time, which makes for a highly stimulating environment (work and otherwise). Unless of course, there is a student sitting in front of you watching ‘Highlander 2’ (happened to me once, drained my productivity for an hour or two — watching videos is bad enough, but ‘Highlander 2’?).
Still, also a very good environment … esp. for writing tasks.
Oh yeah that’s a good tip. I used to do this a lot too back in the day. University libraries are great – especially when you see other people around you being focused. It’s contagious.
The new Macs don’t have Kensington security slot. Therefore, do you have a recommendation on how to secure these type of laptops?
I don’t have one of the new Macs so I can’t give you a strong recommendations. I would go to the Apple store and ask them if they can recommend any.
Great tip on the laptop lock and thanks for actually adding a link to the one you trust.