The Science Of Working In A Coffee Shop

MikeachimThe Everyday, Writing10 Comments

windows of coffee shop

Why small distractions are great if you want amazing ideas.

The best idea I had in 2013 happened as I emerged from a coffee-shop. Although . . . “happened” is too weak a word. It was like a wave broke over my head, bringing me to a halt in the street, my thoughts spluttering. Two seemingly unrelated ideas, both incomplete in ways I couldn’t define but could definitely feel, had joined together and made something whole. This new idea just worked. It immediately felt blindingly obvious, which is the sign you’ve had a brainstorm – everything snicks into place so naturally that it makes you feel stupid for not being able to force it all together yourself.

But of course you can’t force it together. The best you can do is put yourself where lightning seems to strike and hope for the best.

Enter the lightning-rods known as coffee shops.

Hanging out in coffee-houses makes me happy. When I was summing up the good and bad things about the last year, I noticed many of the good things involved Cafe Nero, Starbucks, Costa and heaps of other small shops selling cups of brown water that makes your heart race. I love coffee, but it wasn’t the coffee I was remembering – it was the noise of the people.

I recently discovered Coffitivity, an ambient noise app that makes your laptop (or smartphone) sound like a bustling coffee-house. Everyone loves it, probably in ways that has caught its creators off guard. The New York Times and Fast Company have run articles on it. It’s everywhere – and it’s a 10-minute looping recording of the sound of a shop. That’s basically it.

So why have so many creative professional gone nuts over it?

I backtracked to find out. Coffitivity links to this research paper, which suggests that moderate ambient noise fosters creativity. Coffee-houses usually have a background noise level of around 70 decibels (dB). The paper’s authors found that a lower volume of noise helped with laser-focused concentration, but also helped strait-jacket the mind into a single way of thinking, one that blocked the abstract creation of new ideas from fragments of old ones.

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This goes by the excitingly academic name of “processing disfluency“.

When your thoughts are “fluent,” they are bent solely on the task at hand, and they blot the rest of the world out – including everything else you’re thinking about. What background noise of the 70 dB variety seems to do is tug gently at your arm, like a small child trying to get your attention.

“Hey. Hey. Hey.”

It’s just enough of a distraction that it keeps you from sinking too far into what you’re doing, so you’re bouncing round near the surface of it, within grabbing-distance of other ideas in your head. And since your mind is jittery from all that caffeine, your brain is restless . . . and starts to play “Does This Fit With That?”

It’s a fun theory. And like the very best fun theories, it seems to fit the evidence.

Here’s author Steven Johnson on how good ideas are formed:

In summary:

  • the background noise of a coffee shop helps keep your mind in a state where it can connect random thoughts together in an abstract, playful way . . .
  • the best ideas, the truly brilliant ones, happen because of collisions between sorta-OK-ish ideas, when your brain is in the mood to bang them together to see what happens . . .
  • coffee houses are places where hyper-caffeinated thoughts are leaping out of people’s mouths, and that’s a great environment if your ideas need a little help . . .
  • coffee is great and you should drink gallons of it.

And that’s why I’m spending a lot of this year in coffee shops. See you there?

Further reading

– The strange scientific connection between coffee shops and creativity” – Drake Baer, Fast Company.

– How the hum of a coffee shop can boost creativity” – Anahad O’Connor, New York Times.

 – And if Coffitivity doesn’t help your ideas get jiggy, try [email protected] or Ambient Mixer.

All Photos: Mike Sowden

  • I spend so much money on coffee – minor addiction – and I’d decided to cut back on trips to the coffee shop this year. Not anymore. You’ve saved my habit so thank you :) And hopefully set me on the road to inspiration too…but for now the coffee with do! Great post, fascinating stuff.

  • I completely agree. When I’m writing/editing/researching at home it’s just not the same as being sat in a coffee shop with lots of things going on to stimulate your brain. I was in Costa in Finsbury Park for about 4 hours at the weekend and got loads done! Off to check out the coffitivity site now!

  • Ha, it comes as no surprise to me that managed ambient noise enhances concentration. :) If you take a tour around any software house you’ll find virtually all software developers almost permanently wired in to some form of headphones.

    The music choice varies but it quite often comes in two extremes:- ‘ambient techno’ and either rock or dance/trance music. I’ve known several who listened to classical music whilst they code but overwhelmingly it’s some form of electronic music with a repetitive beat, the more repetitive the better.

    Why? As a programmer one inhabits this weird world that hovers between science and art. It takes a big chunk of protracted periods of concentration and bizarre abstract thought to knock out the instructions that tell computers to do the speedily dumb things they do and programmers almost universally describe this process as ‘flow’ (even if they do not use that word, it applies). It’s about what the makers of The Social Network called being ‘wired in’ other people sometimes use the slightly cheesier term ‘the zone’ – it’s this kind of dream-like state of creativity that seems to gush out. I’ve heard writers and musicians talk about this too.

    The music in the headphones, for me (and I know for others) helps foster that immersion into the netherworld where conscious me is kind of overcome by this much smarter deviant me who actually writes the programs. I literally do not notice my surroundings and the screenful of code and the IDE in which it sits fills my field of vision brightens up as the to and fro of the real world dims. It does happen without the music, of course, but the headphones make reality scud into the distance far more effectively.

    I’ve worked in coffee shops, and even one based in a roller disco, but it’s not the same…well not for me anyway, even after thirty years of coding, and I suspect it would this would be true for other programmers; there are just too many discordant what-was-that clangs and clatters to induce the red pill and enter my own little Matrix.

  • I love this. i’ve got that background noise going on as we speak, and feel (in this snowstorm) that i don’t NEED to run out to the coffeeshop to work, but can make a mokapot in the kitchen and settle in. thank you!

  • Interesting post Mike.
    I’ve never really “gone out, gone out” since I don’t like coffee. I live on The Continent so drinking coffee is serious business! I know what you mean though. I guess it’s the gentle background clatter, that slight hum of busy-ness that sort of gets people moving.

  • Good to know – thanks.

    Lots of guilt-free trips to coffee-shops coming up!

  • Interesting article, I will have to share this with my husband. We have rented a house in Guatemala and there are always birds chirping and insects buzzing, he is having some great ideas being here. I wonder if its the same kind of idea, with the background noise.

  • Great to know. I spend a lot on coffee but usually do my work outside of the coffee shops. Maybe I should start doing my writing there

  • tracy

    Here in Hawaii, we have some really great boutique style coffee houses to go to. What I wish someone would create though, is something that combines that with more of a co-working type space. That way, you can rent time and stay just for a few hours, or for the day, or week. In any case, I frequent a few of these coffee places for a change of environment since my office is at home, or sometimes a beautiful hotel lobby with wi-fi. Still, if I’m on deadline and need to be super focused, I find my best writing is right back at my home office desk.

  • Now I know why I love working coffee shops so much and why i see to do my best work there. I find too much noise being distracted and too much quiet a bit odd for me to get things done too. At least this helps justify the price of a latte.