Why I Avoid Coffee Shops to Get Work Done

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Ribbon 72, my favorite NYC coworking space, was closing at 4:30. But I had more work to do. So I walked into a nearby coffee shop. This place was packed. There wasn’t a seat in the house. There were fellow lap-toppers scattered about at tables, some focused on their screens, others talking on the phone. There was an older couple chatting. A group of tourists sat around a high table. And the man behind the counter shouted that he was ready to take another order. This place (it wasn’t Starbucks) was abuzz with business. And good for them! But not for me.

I was trying to find a spot to sit and do work. From years of doing work in coffee shops, I know how to scan a room for people who look like they’re about to leave. You have to stand in place and stare around for at least two full minutes. I did just that and a few people got up from a table right in the front. I pounced on it, leaving my coat on one of the chairs while I went to order something. I returned to the table with my drink and I set up shop. I located the outlet, took out my plug, laptop, notebook, pen and highlighter. I was all ready to work.      

But within seconds of creating my work station, I realized this wasn’t a very good spot for me. I was right at the entrance, and as people walked in looking for a place to sit, it made me feel guilty that I had created an office at a table that could accommodate two to three people looking to chat and enjoy some warm beverages together. And after all, I was in a coffee shop and that’s what a coffee shop is for, right? People getting together to socialize. Casual first dates. Catching up with a friend. Even politely breaking up with someone.  

Anyway, while this table wasn’t ideal, it was the only one available. I started looking at my “To do” list when a group of three older people walked in from the cold looking for a place to sit. They seemed nice. Maybe they were cousins who hadn’t seen each other in years and wanted to catch up and share stories? Who knows? So while looking down, I’m feeling guilty about taking a spot where they could be connecting. I then glance around, looking for a table on their behalf. Finally, part of a larger communal table opens up for them. But I still feel bad, thinking that my table would probably be more intimate for them. But OK, they’re smiling and they’re fine. Now I can resume trying to work. I glance down again at my “To do” list and who walks in but a woman carrying a baby. She is with a young man (presumably her husband) who’s using a cane. Really? I’m just getting settled and I get a woman with a baby and a man with a cane! And not even an old man with a cane, which is far more common. A young man with a cane. It’s as if the unproductivity demons were trying to get me to relinquish my table to keep me from getting anything accomplished. 

Meanwhile, I noticed that a single stool had become available along a counter, which meant that, if necessary, I could give the baby-laden and infirm young family my table and still have a place to sit. The stool, however, hardly had enough room to fit my laptop, so it was a far less desirable spot. The young couple is now placing their order and one of them says to the man behind the counter, “To go, please.” Yes! What a relief. I can start trying to do work again. And remarkably, for a solid five minutes, no one walks in. I can focus on me and my work. Back to my “To do” list. This is great!!  As I’m enjoying the relative peace, I realize that the music is extremely loud. Not only is it loud, it’s aggressive music that isn’t conducive to working. I put on my head phones, but even so, I can still hear (and even feel) the throbbing bass. I realize that I’m sitting right near a speaker. 

“Gee, if I were just further away from this speaker,” I thought. But then I look around and realize that all over the place are big speakers hanging from the ceiling. This loud music isn’t an accident.  It’s their thing, part of the aesthetic. OK. “Todd, just try to zone it out,” I tell myself. “Try.”  So I start trying and I start working.

I noticed that the people next to me (who thankfully were dull and quiet talkers) have gotten up. Good. This way, if new people walk in, there’s a free table and I don’t have to feel bad. On the other hand, I have no idea what potentially loud or annoying people could walk through the door and distract me. I must be honest and say that I’m a terrible eavesdropper, such that even if people are likeable and interesting, that’s just as distracting for me because I then want to hear their conversation and join in.  All of a sudden, two very loud women rush into the place and head directly for the table next to me. Oh God no! But as they approach, I breathe a sigh of relief. They’re speaking a language I don’t understand! So it’s just like white noise. Fantastic! Things are looking up for me and my productivity. 

And then...the door opens. This time, it’s a man and a woman. They don’t seem to be a couple. The woman is a good bit older. She’s on the larger side and she looks pained. She looks like she could use a cane. The two of them scan the room and look very disappointed that there’s no place to sit. And I am still the guilty, perhaps overly considerate person I was 10 minutes ago. This woman really looks like she could use a seat. And that stool is still available along the counter, the one with hardly any counter space. I could make do there. What do I do? Why is it so hard to get some work done in a coffee shop?

The two of them walk out the door and I can see them through the glass, just standing in the cold, looking around like lost penguins. The stool is still empty. So I walk outside and I say to them “You know, you can sit at the table where I am and I can move to a stool.”

The woman says, “That’s so kind of you. But we’re actually waiting for two others. We’re looking to have a meeting.” 

“OK,” I said. And I thought, “Good luck having a productive meeting in there.”

What all three of us needed was an NYC coworking space, not an NYC coffee shop. I don’t know why I went so long without a NYC coworking space. When I started a company some years ago, I worked out of a coworking space. It wasn’t very expensive and it was for me and my brother. After that, perhaps with the expansion of WeWork, I think I assumed that all coworking spaces were as expensive as WeWork. But I was wrong. I discovered KettleSpace which is just $99 a month for unlimited access to all their locations. So when Ribbon 72 closes at 5 p.m., I can go to The Wilson which closes at 10 p.m.  

In trying to find a nearby spot to work, I was reminded of the challenges of working out of a coffee shop. They’re loud, overcrowded and I go on this emotional roller coaster of whether or not I’m deserving of my seat. That might just be me. Nevertheless, at a coworking space, I know I belong there because I know we’re all there for the same reason: to get work done. NYC coworking spaces are not perfect. Sometimes there’s a loud talker who doesn’t realize that the shared work space isn’t his or her private office to have a full-voice, animated conversation. Still, when you want to get work done, NYC coworking spaces beat NYC coffee shops any day. I don’t have to worry about loud music or overhearing annoying (or interesting) conversations. Or polite breakups. 

About the Author

Todd Stone is a freelance writer and a standup comedian. He is also a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and has written extensively about startups, coworking and the future of work.

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