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 Focus@will or Ambient Mixer.

All Photos: Mike Sowden