Together, Alone: How Coffee Shops Aid Productivity

Sarah McMahon
4 min readOct 10, 2019

“In order to write about life, first you must live it.”~ Ernest Hemingway

Much has been said about writer’s block; how to overcome it, whether or not it’s real, why some writers are more susceptible to paralyzing block than others, etc. But like Hemingway said, to write well one must live well, and furthermore, pay attention to life. Interesting shit happens all the time, but few of us notice because we’re elbow deep in Instagram, slowly developing thumb arthritis and a mini hunchback.

When I experience a bout of writer’s block, I go to a coffee shop. I normally frequent Starbucks because I appreciate it’s sheer predictability. The wifi consistently connects. The coffee is the same everywhere; from downtown Chicago to the deep south to LA, Starbucks tastes the same. The slightly burnt, bitter, bubbling cups are nothing if not practical-Starbucks coffee is strong, though objectively horrible. But, when expectations are low to non-existent, anything better than the worst is a pleasant surprise. Sometimes, I seek out new Starbucks locations under the guise of finding the most hospitable shop. Of course, they are mostly the same, some with better seating, and some with kinder baristas, but I digress.

Another reason I love working at Starbucks is that there is usually an outstanding opportunity for people watching. I love people watching not only because I love people (most of the time) but also because they serve as welcome distractions. What I love the most though, is that we all congregate in the same place and speak to no one. Despite 20 humans sharing the same sitting space, breathing the same air, listening to the same Spotify playlist and imbibing in the same largely beloved beverage, we all don’t want to be bothered.

There is the couple with some lingering animosity that’s only detectable in the way they turn their shoulders slightly away from one another. There is the elderly gentleman reading the local newspaper-a real, paper copy of a local newspaper. He’s wearing suspenders, which I haven’t seen anyone ever don with such unsuspecting grace. There is a young man wearing big headphones, playing a video game on his Mac. There are businessmen in black suits murmuring incomprehensibly in a corner, likely discussing the stock market, or the housing market, or some other market I don’t care to think about. There is a woman with large hair and a full face of makeup who opens her laptop but spends the better part of an hour scrolling through her phone. And finally, my favorite patron, a man wearing combat boots and a leather jacket in 80 degree weather, double-fisting a large cappuccino-frappaccino-something and an iced tea.

And then, there’s me. Perched on the edge of a tall stool with a cup of black coffee and a large thermos of ice water. I like high-top tables because they allow me to stand and write (Hemingway also liked to stand and write, but he ended up offing himself, so it isn’t a fool-proof writing strategy). I dislike sitting for many reasons, the most immediate of which is that it hurts my butt and induces fidgeting. I’m under the unique impression that if more people sat less, the world would be a much better place.

I’m more creative and productive when I go to Starbucks to work, and for a while I simply assumed it was due to the change in scenery. Turns out, most people are more productive in coffee shops, for a few reasons:

1. Novelty

A coffee shop is different from your office or home, but the people in the coffee shop are also never the same. Your physical environment plays a huge role in the amount of stimuli feeding your brain. Simply being in a new location forces your brain to create new pathways and mechanisms to accomplish tasks, increasing its neuroplasticity. A change in location has been associated with better problem solving and increased efficiency. Kind of a cool hack, right?

2. Noise

A 2012 study from the University of British Columbia found that a moderate level of background noise is better for creativity than total silence. The ideal level of background noise is ~70 decibels. Researchers named this phenomenon “processing disfluency,” which essentially means that a little distraction is a good thing. Being too focused on a problem you’re trying to solve can actually hinder the problem-solving process, and the convoluted, illegible noise of a coffee shop (indistinguishable chatter, espresso machines, etc) create the perfect amount of sound that won’t cause interruption.

3. Energy

In addition to novelty and noise, the final factor that makes coffee shops productive is glaringly simple: shared energy. Being around others who are working hard may help improve performance; one recent study suggests that mental effort is contagious. And since coffee shop patrons are usually strangers, we aren’t distracted by those around us, but motivated.

P.S. Click HERE for a slightly biased list of the best coffee shops in every state.


Sarah Rose