Working from coffee shops could be destroying your productivity. Here’s why.

Coffee ShopA few weeks ago, my wife and I dropped into a coffee shop that we’d been meaning to try.

It was a trendy hipster spot, and on that day, the plaid shirts outnumbered the available tables, so we took a seat at a big wooden communal table in the middle of the room.

Now normally, I love shamelessly eavesdropping on coffee shop conversations. Between the first dates and the job interviews, there’s enough awkward squirming going on to outshine any episode of The Office.

But I was totally unprepared for what I was about to hear.

To our left, an art student was complaining to her friends about the latest rejection letter she got from a poetry magazine.

I felt for her. Putting yourself out there is hard.

I turned to my right, where a second group was taking a break from their own poetry to debate the nuances of salad.

(This is 100% true)

Hipster 1: Did you massage it?

Hipster 2: Nah, I just kinda chopped it up. Why would I massage it?

Hipster 1 (Getting visibly animated): DUDE. You HAVE to massage your kale. It gets SOOOOOO tender. I’m honestly surprised you didn’t know that.

Hipster 2: (Ashamed at his failure as a hipster. Hangs head and goes back to writing poetry in silence.)

The point is, all kinds of different people hang out at coffee shops. Including a lot of folks trying to get work done.

But is that actually a good thing?

Let’s dig into the research and find out…

First, the not-so-bad news

In 2012, researchers at the University of Chicago asked people to answer a set of questions designed to gauge creative thinking. To test how ambient noise impacted creativity, they played soundtracks at various levels.

What they found was pretty interesting: when ambient noise was set to 70 decibels — coincidentally, the same noise level found at an average coffee shop — participants performed about 35% better than those who worked in quieter settings.

So, theoretically, working from a coffee shop can help boost creative thinking. If your coffee shop is “average” when it comes to noise level.

But what about actual productivity?

Here comes the bad news

First of all, in that same study, performance plummeted once the noise level reached 85 decibels.

85 decibels is about the same as hearing downtown traffic from inside of your car. So, not at all unreasonable for a particularly busy coffee shop.

Or, one with an army of super-duper-important business people talking loudly on their cell phones.

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“Nah, it’s totally cool, I can talk now. Mind if I put you on speakerphone? Great!”

Second, while that study measured creativity, it didn’t measure other important factors like focus.

In fact, a different study in Applied Cognitive Psychology concluded that silence is best for focus and short-term memory recall.

Another element of your average coffee shop that the first study didn’t measure, since it only played sounds for participants, is visual distraction.

You know, like the visual of the kale-massaging hipster miming the way he rubs his leafy greens that I’ll now never get out of my head.

Multiple studies have tested visual distractions, and the conclusions have been consistent: visual distractions have a measured negative impact on cognitive functions and focus.

The bottom line

Coffee shops are great for a lot of things.

Boosting actual get-stuff-done productivity, for most people, is not one of them.

While consistent ambient noise can help us think more creatively, the variable noise levels at coffee shops — paired with the visual distractions — make them a poor environment for productivity.

Here’s what to do instead

If you’re one of the few people who actually gets more done working from coffee shops, you can ignore this.

If you’re like me and want to work in a productive environment without the distractions, here’s what you should do:

1) If it’s getting out of the house you’re after, go to the library. It’s quiet, and you can usually find a nook without a ton of foot traffic to distract you.

2) Try listening to music. Remember, for creative work, research found that 70 decibels was optimal.

Bonus: according to one study,there’s one type of task that’s actually better to do while listening to music.

For repetitive tasks that you already know how to do really well — in this study, surgeons were evaluated while listening to music — music can improve your performance.

Do This Now

If you’ve been working out of coffee shops and wish you could be more productive, go to Google and find your nearest library, grab your headphones and go there instead. If you need help, here’s a global directory with more than 180,000 libraries.

You’ll think better, work better and get more done.

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  • Elisa Silverman

    I am one of those people who does actually get a lot done at coffee shops (I don’t worry about massaging my food). But for me, the key is what type of work and what type of coffee shop. I have the mix that works for me. So I wouldn’t suggest ignoring cafes altogether.

    Still, your tips are valuable for us cafe-dwellers. Libraries are great for certain tasks, but can be too quiet for others. Productivity isn’t an all or nothing – some atmospheres will make you more productive in different tasks, so once you figure out your productivity quirks, you can pick your spots accordingly.

    • Len Markidan

      Thanks for sharing this, Elisa. I appreciate the counterpoint, and I’m glad you still find the tips useful.

      I’m 100% in agreement about figuring out your productivity quirks; we all have these, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

  • Justine Espersen

    This is definitely some helpful information to keep in mind the next I feel like being cool and doing my work at the nearest coffee shop. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I appreciate it!
    P.S. I’m sorry you had to overhear that disturbing conversation about massaging kale.

    • Len Markidan

      Thanks, Justine, I’m happy it was helpful!

      Re: the kale, well, I just chalk that up as part of making sacrifices for my readers 🙂

      • SpiritualNurse Sandy

        🙂 That was the most amusing sentence of the piece ,, “Ashamed at his failure as a hipster. Hangs head and goes back to writing poetry in silence..” Awe, poor clueless hipster.

      • OneDimensionalBlogger

        Or, you know, instead of being a judgmental ass you could have learned something about how to prepare kale. There’s nothing hipster about good food prep technique, but there’s something terribly off-putting about people who make hackneyed remarks at the expense of others. It’s 2015 and people dress differently than you. Get over it.

  • Chad Ballantyne

    The ideal spot for these digital nomads is a coworking space! A great combination of the best things you like about your home office, coffee shop and executive space! All for the cost of what you’d pay working at a coffee shop all day. Average $15-$20/day depending on the space.

  • Jeremiah Fyffe

    I agree, my productivity doesn’t go up at the coffee shop.

    But …

    I am a pastor, so I work with people. Not just when I’m in a meeting, but also when I’m writing my sermons, my sermons are FOR people. I don’t think a coffee shop helps me write any faster, by it does remind me that these are the people I am writing this sermon for.

    Sometimes productivity isn’t just getting more done quickly. Sometimes it’s finally getting done what should have been done the whole time. Atmosphere and inspiration plays a big part in that.

    • Len Markidan

      Interesting perspective, Jeremiah. Thanks for sharing!

  • Stu Green

    This is a very good article. Thanks for posting. Some great research there. I’m looking at this too as we explore the benefit of co-working spaces vs coffee shops vs working at home, etc. I work for Project Bubble which is a productivity app that helps people get more work done, in case anyone is interested —

    • Stu Green

      By the way, I’ve put this article on our Twitter feed. Thanks again.

      • Len Markidan

        Thanks, Stu! Will check out Project Bubble today.

  • claywginn

    I love working at the library. The problem with where we’ve moved to is that the libraries closest to us don’t have decent working spaces (i.e., with nearby power outlets). There are a couple that I’ve found that are farther away, but it’s not worth the drive to get there most days.

    I’ve always found coffee shops too distracting. Too many people and too many conversations for me to accomplish any meaningful work. However, to each his own (or her own).

  • filemanagement

    When the espresso machine comes on you can not think or talk with someone until it quits. Bet it is over 85 decibles.

  • Tim Gardner

    I’m assuming the studies didn’t take into account people with ADD. I have (self-diagnosed) attention deficit disorder, and a coffee shop is the PERFECT place for productivity and focus. A quite room with no foot traffic kills all productivity for me, even if I am listening to music. Coffee shops provide just the right amount and types of distractions to keep me focused and please my ADD-need to be distracted without pulling me away from my work.

  • bklalor

    Sometimes I like to go to a real coffee shop but when I am home I use a free app called Coffitivity to play coffee shop ambient sounds in the background. I have never massaged my kale.

  • PracticalSimplicity

    Agree.. give me my Keurig and iTunes and I’m super productive.

  • Justin
  • jarofclay77

    Headphones are what keep me in the groove at a coffee shop. I can take them off when I have less brain intensive tasks to do and put them on when I need to focus.

  • Kathy Forer

    Thanks for the tip about kale needing massage, a valuable takeaway!
    Working in silence, environmental sounds only, can also be inspiring, as long as you keep breathing! and is wholly worth the challenge of letting go of using aural metronomic devices like radio or iTunes.

  • Farida AL-Rimawi

    I remember when i used to go a lot to coffee shop, and I did convince myself I do better there. Sometime I really did. Other times I just get really distracted. But working from home can really makes you lonely, and library is a gd option but not when you feel alone so coffee shop is a great option for that.

  • Julia

    interesting!! thanks for breaking down the generalizations into those categories… and your story was hilarious. “Ashamed at his failure as a hipster. Hangs head and goes back to writing poetry in silence.” … hahaha yessss


    Interesting article! I work from a home office most of the time but sometimes I really like the luxury of just being able to get out and work somewhere else for the day. Libraries don’t really cut it for me though, I need constant access to coffee. I’ve found bookstore/coffee shop combo’s like Barnes & Noble to be the perfect solution. Even when they get busy, they’re still usually quieter and less distracting than a busy coffee shop but provide the same atmosphere and feel.

  • judy bernier

    This could improve concentration….back yard office pod…because….who doesn’t like a pod??

  • Michael Williams

    Interesting. I am much more productive and creative in my local, chatty cafe than I am in my silent room at home. I find far more distractions at home than I do when I’m out. I do like to wear headphones and play music at low level. And occasionally I do find solace in libraries but too often the books themselves become my distraction.

  • Adam Robinson

    I find that I am more productive in a coffee shop! I am a people person and I like being in setting with other people, but with minimal distractions. There are ALWAYS distractions at the office.

  • Charlie Sanders

    I think coffee shops are extremely productive!
    The amount of work that needs to be completed when they become very busy is crazy.