Coffeehouse Culture: Optimal Distraction

December 15, 2008

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:

“A coffeehouse puzzle”
“Questions from the supply side”
“New York v. Elsewhere”
“Coffeehouse as office”

“CoC”

10 Responses to “Coffeehouse Culture: Optimal Distraction”

  1. Bob Murphy Says:

    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.

    I agree with your two implications, but I disagree that they are due to your explanation. E.g. if someone just buys a cup of coffee and sits and drinks it, he probably isn’t going to face the wall. I don’t think it’s because most people don’t have the patience to finish a cup of coffee without optimal distraction. On the contrary, I think such a person can enjoy the coffee and also enjoy watching people.

    By the same token, if I took my computer (or a book) to a coffeeshop, I wouldn’t face the wall (unless it was a window), but it’s because the whole point of me going to the coffeeshop is to take a break from the intense work at the library or office.

    Of course, now we have this blog to provide as much distraction as we could ever want…

  2. Steve Horwitz Says:

    I wonder Sandy whether there’s an evolutionary explanation for the apparent need to be “optimally distracted.” In particular, I wonder whether that tendency to look up every so often, esp. when someone new enters the shop, isn’t a residue of early humanity’s need to be constantly alert to animals in the nearby area. Perhaps our ability to focus was honed in those sorts of environments – we had to learn to screen out the background noise/movement from the real threats. Perhaps that’s why we can work in coffeehouses with the buzz of ambient noise, but the new person entering or walking in front of us becomes that “optimal distraction.”

    Just thinking out loud here.

  3. Sandy Ikeda Says:

    Bob,

    What I understand you to say is that you think there are other reasons for observing most people facing the front of the store — I agree — but I do think it is an implication of my thesis as well. And, though it may not be easy to tell them apart sometimes (though it is in many cases), I’m really talking about people who go to coffeehouses to work, not those who go there to relax.

    Steve,

    Interesting speculation, and, hey, I’m no expert on cognitive stuff or even coffeehouses really, I’m just blogging about what I’ve observed.

    Anyway, I read somewhere recently, perhaps it was Daniel Gilbert’s _Stumbling on Happiness_, that upon encountering a new external stimulus the very first judgment we make is whether it is something worth paying attention to (which I realized just as I wrote it that that is a very Kirznerian insight — and bloggable). This suggests that we are paying attention, sort of, all the time and that in an environment that’s too quiet, such as at home alone, we feel starved for stimulation.


  4. Steve, my problem is much more present-oriented than an evolutionary vestige — when I’m in a coffeehouse in Brooklyn, I sit facing the front and look up occasionally because I’m wary that at any moment Sandy might walk in, not a wild animal!

  5. Sandy Ikeda Says:

    That’s not likely to happen, Gene, because I’ll probably already be sitting there!

  6. Bob Murphy Says:

    Sandy, I think you got my point, but let me exaggerate it to make sure: Suppose I said, “I think most people go to coffeehouses because they saw a movie one time about a guy who would go to a coffeehouse and continue breathing. Now, one implication of my theory is that everybody at the coffeehouse would continue breathing, and that is in fact what we see. Can anyone think of other ways to confirm my theory that people are motivated by the movie?”

    Of course, what you said isn’t ridiculous like the above, but on the other hand it struck me as odd that people not-facing-the-wall was a point you mentioned in favor of your theory, when it seems to me that that observation is compatible with all sorts of theories besides yours.

  7. Sandy Ikeda Says:

    Bob,

    I guess I’m not being clear. Yes, I got your point the first time — the reductio wasn’t really necessary. Also, nowhere in my post do I ask, as you put it, “Can anyone think of other ways to confirm my theory…?” Instead I ask, “Any other implications?” What else follows from the idea that (minor and major) distractions promote productivity? I’m asking for IMPLICATIONS not CONFIRMATIONS. And if people come up with implications that are not consistent with observations, well, let’s hear them. (I’ll also entertain observations that are inconsistent with my implications.) Capice?

  8. Peter Klein Says:

    Sandy, you should follow up with a post discussing policy implications. For example, coffee-houses should have a rule forbidding people not using a computer or other electronic device from taking a table near an electric outlet. (Who _are_ these people, anyway?) The Coase Theorem doesn’t seem to work here, so I favor command and control. Maybe a federally appointed Seating Czar could be in charge.

  9. Sandy Ikeda Says:

    Peter,

    I actually discussed some of these issues in an earlier post, Coffeehouse Culture: Questions from the Supply Side at https://thinkmarkets.wordpress.com/2008/12/04/coffeehouse-culture-questions-from-the-supply-side/ that mentions a coffeehouse that has started charging for electricity. I’d bet property rights there are defined in a way you’d appreciate.

    Also, the December 15th New York magazine has a nice article on coffeehouses in the West Village, “Caffeine Cluster” http://nymag.com/restaurants/features/52742/, that profiles a shop called “Grounded.” They reportedly have a 1.5 hour seating limit. Not sure how they enforce it — do they go around and chalk your shoes? — but I’ll try to find out.


  10. […] passage came to mind after reading Steve Horwitz’s comment on my coffeehouse post on “optimal distraction.”  Steve had written: I wonder Sandy whether there’s an evolutionary explanation for the […]


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