Coffee shop ambience

The breakfast of champions

There's something about coffee shops that quite dramatically improves my productivity. Many of my most effective working days happen when I'm able to get out of my home office and amble from coffee house to coffee house.

I've long suspected I'm not alone. I'd say that at least a quarter of weekday customers in an Edinburgh city centre coffee shop are getting on with some serious work: not just idly browsing the web. This has been common in the United States for a long time now - I first noticed significant numbers of coffee workers when on holiday there about 10 years ago - and has now become mainstream in Britain.

My hunch has been endorsed by (quite) hard science. As reported in this Freelance Advisor article, The Journal of Consumer Research asked 300 participants to undertake a set of mental exercises at three different noise levels. One group completed the tasks in complete silence, one at noise levels of 70 decibels (typical coffee shop level), and one in louder conditions. The second group scored highest in creativity tests and were deemed to be 'more innovative' than their compatriots.

Why should that be? My tuppenceworth:

  • The modest level of activity and chatter that form the backdrop to coffee shop working provides just the right amount of stimulation. There's the reassuring presence of others, in a relaxed, non-work environment. For a freelancer it's a welcome escape from the frequently oppressive silence of the home office: background music can only sooth to an extent when a deadline is looming. The company of strangers reminds one that there's a world beyond project schedules and budgets. Even if you're there to work, it somehow doesn't quite feel like it, more like a nice little outing.
  • Coffee houses often have big windows, providing a pleasant, bright working environment, with an outlook onto the outside world. Again, a reminder of a world beyond work.
  • If multiple shops are close together you can plan out a working day involving periods of concentrated activity interspersed with walking intervals: one and a half hours to start off the day, followed by a half a hour walk to the next place, another hour and a half there, then lunch (if necessary!) where a bit more work can be done, then perhaps the same schedule in the afternoon. I find myself much less prone to daydreaming if there's the prospect of a walk and a change of scenery in just an hour's time or so.
  • Finally, there's the coffee itself of course, and the other nice snacks on offer. Better than that available at most offices or at home. Clearly one can have too much of a good thing, so some of my stops don't involve caffeine. But, sensibly sampled, it's a useful drug.

The only real drawback for me has been cost, not only that of shelling out at each stop, but of actually getting to an environment where it's possible. I'm currently based in the Scottish Borders, where the good coffee shops are rather spread out. I have to commute to Edinburgh to do it, so it remains a fairly rare treat. A rare treat for now: later this year I'm moving back to Edinburgh, so plans for my coffee rota are already at an advanced stage…