By Sandy Ikeda
At the end of my last Coffeehouse Culture post “Coffeehouse as office”, I asked: What makes working in a coffeehouse more productive than working at home when there seem to be as many distractions in the former as the latter?
There are at least two reasons.
The first is that, because you’re being watched by a number of people, whether they let on or not, you’re more self-conscious in a coffeehouse about getting up all the time (admittedly, surfing the Web may be immune to this social constraint), which raises the cost to you of doing it (and this is in addition to the cost of food and drink) and so you do it less. Consequently, at a coffeehouse I’m less likely to get up for trivial reasons. If I’m going to leave my stuff on the table to get another drink or whatever, it’s a bother and I’m not going to do it too frequently, maybe once an hour instead of every 20 minutes if I’m at home.
The second reason is more important. I know everyone is different, but I need some kind of minor distraction from reading or writing – and it could just be a momentary break – perhaps every few minutes. I doubt I could last very long in most cases if I had no distractions at all.
Now, at home there typically isn’t much going on around me, and the need for minor distractions may take several seconds rather than a moment to satisfy, as I stop, look around for a change of scenery, and try to get back to work. I may have to look farther for one, into another part of the apartment perhaps, because things there are pretty quiet. Consequently, the search for a minor distraction can itself easily turn into a major distraction. (In his comment on an earlier post, Mario mentions going to the library to work to ward off lonesomeness, and I think this is related to boredom, which in turn is related to the absence of distractions.)
But I also find that I need a major distraction of a couple of minutes every hour or so to stretch my legs, etc. Home is good for this, with its “big four” (TV, bathroom, refrigerator, and Internet). But having too many of these major breaks lowers productivity significantly.
Maybe I’m weaker than most, but the point is that I need both kinds of distractions, major and especially minor, to keep my focus over the long haul. I have a feeling though that most people are like me.
So, paradoxically, we need to be distracted to stay concentrated — like the way brakes on cars let us drive faster. But they have to be the right kind and at the right time. At home there aren’t enough minor distractions to help us maintain our focus over the long haul and so major work-breaks come too frequently and our productivity suffers. The trick is to find the right balance – not too much, not too little – juuuuuuust right. Although “optimal” isn’t a word I’m overly fond of, it may be apt in this case.
A coffeehouse is good place to be optimally distracted. That is, it’s easier there than at home to find the right balance between minor and major distractions.
When someone unexpectedly walks in the front door or passes by my table, I glance up briefly to look. This minor distraction takes only a moment, and then I’m good for another few minutes of solid concentration. This happens regularly but not entirely predictably throughout my stay, and so I keep fresher, longer. And I don’t get up as often as I would at home, where major distractions cost less to indulge in.
One implication of this thesis is that most of the people sitting in a coffeehouse will face the front of the store (or wherever there’s the most movement). I think that’s true. It’s rather unusual to see people, say, facing the wall. Instead, they sit facing the front, even if there’s a computer screen in between, because that’s where the minor distractions are. They want to be distracted … optimally.
You will tend to see people sitting facing away from traffic, if there’s a choice, in an unfavorable physical environment (e.g., too sunny or too cold), or where there are too many major distractions like very loud noise or overwhelming activity, or where there isn’t much of a coffeehouse culture. (The latter’s the case for example in my sleepy hometown of Mesa, Arizona but not in nearby Tempe, a college town.)
Any other implications?
A lot depends on where you live. While you can see coffeehouse culture in the suburbs, I think it’s primarily an urban phenomenon. The time-cost of bringing your stuff to the coffeehouse, as long as it’s not too big or bulky, is much lower when you live within walking distance of many things, including at least two or more coffeehouses (to avoid overcrowding). That is, where population densities are high and land uses are highly diverse. In short, a living city.
In case anyone’s interested, here are my other Coffeehouse Culture posts on ThinkMarkets: