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How to Work From Coffee Shops and Other Public Places

Close up woman using laptop in coffee shop

Working from noisy, bustling places like coffee shops presents its own set of challenges. Let’s look at how to be productive no matter where you work.

I’ve done my fair share of working from coffee shops, museums, hotel bars, and other public places. It’s surprisingly easy if you approach it in the right way. On the other hand, go in expecting everyone to cater to your every whim, and you’ll be sorely disappointed. This is how I do it.

Pick the Right Place

Where you choose to work is 9/10ths of the battle. Pick a small, busy Starbucks that does most of its trade as takeout, and you’ll have a much harder time of things than if you pick a quiet local coffee place that mostly serves regulars who also work from their laptops.

And while it’s traditional, you don’t have to work from a coffee shop. Libraries are fantastic and geared for people to work quietly, although you won’t be able to enjoy the whole coffee part of things. Get past the optics of being in a bar during the day, and they can also be a great place to work: many serve coffee and food, and aren’t as packed as other options until much later in the day.

NYPL website
Public libraries are a seriously underrated work spot.

There are other smaller details to be aware of like how many charging spots there are. A coffee shop set up for remote workers will have one at pretty much every table. A takeaway place might only have a single one. Don’t try and work from a place that can’t give you power—or has super slow Wi-Fi—if you have any other options.

One other thing to think about is to avoid places you go socially or that you might see people you know. The objective here is to work not to chat. The last thing you need is to run into a friend who wants to do nothing more than catch up about their latest Instagram-inspired trip.

Do the Right Kind of Work

Another critical factor in working from a public space is choosing the right kind of work to do. Don’t expect nearby tables to keep quiet while you have an urgent Skype call. And on the flipside, absolutely don’t even think about making a Skype call using your computer’s built-in microphone; you will annoy the hell out of everyone.

The best work to do in public places is the kind of thing you can do with just your laptop or a pen and paper. If you need an extra monitor, a typewriter, a special keyboard, or anything else, you’re just going to make your life more difficult. Bonus points if the work is something that you can get into a deep flow state when you’re doing it. Nothing cuts out external distractions like total focus.

Take Control of Your Environment

While you don’t have as much control over your environment as you do in a home office—no special potted plant collections or Zen-inspired wall quotes—that doesn’t mean you can’t put your stamp on it.

The first thing is to pick the right place to sit. Don’t sit next to the bathroom, the door, the service door, or anywhere else that people are going to push by all the time. I find few things more distracting than someone moving through my peripheral vision. If you can grab a booth without taking up more space than is fair, do it. Another reliable option is to share a table with someone who is also working.

My preference is to take a window table and face out the window. I find the people behind the glass barrier a lot less distracting than those within. Plus, it means that if anyone you do know comes in, they’re less likely to recognize you.

Post Rock playlist
Music and noise-canceling headphones can go a long way towards cutting out distractions.

Once you’ve got a bit of a handle on your personal space, the next thing to do is control what you hear. Some people love to work to the bustling sounds of a busy public area—I don’t. This is where noise canceling headphones are an absolute godsend. While they won’t cut out all noise, combined with some ambient electronic, post-rock, or classical music, you’ll be pretty much in a world of your own. Crank up the volume and get down to business.

Getting distracted by your environment can also lead to you getting distracted on your devices. Put your phone on silent and tuck it away. If you can, block distracting apps with something like FocusMe then do it. If your options are work or be bored, then you’re much more likely to work.

Keep the Staff Onside

Remember, you’re working in someone’s business. If you’re sitting at a table, you’re taking up the space of a paying customer, which means you need to behave like one. Don’t just assume purchasing a single coffee in the morning means it’s okay for you to hog some prime seating for the rest of the day leaching off the wifi. Buy things regularly. One purchase every hour or two is my general rule.

Also, be mindful of how much space you’re taking up. In a small coffee shop, don’t take over a four-top table. That’s just inconsiderate.

It’s also worth tipping well and becoming friendly with the staff if you work somewhere regularly. If you get a reputation as a lousy customer, they’ll be able to make your life more awkward. On the other hand, if you get them on your side, then you can expect special treatment and bonuses like free pastries that would otherwise be going in the trash. It doesn’t take much to smile, say please and thank you, and tip the right amount.

Coffee shops have this mythical reputation as a perfect place to work. While they have their upsides, don’t expect to be productive just because you left your house.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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