A 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.
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.
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.