Coffee Shops: The Worst Place to Work From as a Creative

Coffee Shops: The Worst Place to Work From as a Creative

Being a freelancer, I used to love going to coffee shops and working away there. It seemed convenient at first, as there were plenty of like-minded people doing freelancer things. Little did I know that by going to coffee shops, I was actually harming my productivity.  

If you Google freelancer and go to pictures, it won’t take long to find a stock photo of a millennial sitting in a coffee shop at a laptop, doing some work. This stereotypical image is what most people see freelancers as. While that's great for the amount of “local coffee shops supporting local artists,” it is actually pretty bad for the people inside. The coffee shop is originally designed to be a social space where you meet people, take breaks, and enjoy being social, not the opposite. Coffee shops are a great place to socialize, but not such a great place to get productive work done. Even then, most of the time, a meeting is unnecessary. I believe it was Tim Ferris in his book “4-Hour Work Week” who said to cut all unnecessary meetings. In this article, I collected some reasons why you should get out of the coffee shop as soon as possible.

Expensive

If you read my previous articles, you may know that I am not a fan of unnecessary spending. The markup on coffee varies from place to place, but one thing is true: it is often huge. The same cup of cappuccino could’ve cost you way less and probably would also taste better. Let us do some math. Every day you go to a coffee shop, you will probably end up drinking 1-2 cups of coffee, at $3-4 a cup, and have a sandwich, which is another $3-4. Overall, you are easily looking at a $6-12 spend a day. While it seems like not a significant sum, these things add up, and in a regular 5-day week, you will spend $60 just for coffee shops, which in a month, will amount to $240. No matter how much you make as a freelancer, spending such a large amount of money on coffee should set off some alarm bells ringing. Even when the price per cup is relatively low, depending on your city, a simple espresso can be as high as $5 or more. Simply taking into account your coffee spending, you can save up to $2,880 a year and spend it on improving your photography.

Perhaps if you stop going to coffee shops, you will be able to afford a new lens?

Distracting

Coffee shops are notoriously difficult to work in if you don’t have good noise cancellation headphones with fairly loud music playing. I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely hard to concentrate in loud environments. Just being able to cut out the surrounding noise has a hugely positive effect on my productivity. That said, you will still be distracted by everything around you, from loud kids to loud music in the cafe to the sound of coffee grinders. Oh, and make sure that there is a way to keep your eyes from wandering off to distractions and that nobody bumps your chair as well or spills their drink on you. After such a day of “working,” you are likely to get way less done and feel dissatisfied with your progress.

A classic scene in your local coffee shop. While looking pleasant, it is a productivity killer.

Unprofessional

Being in the era of zoom, it is not uncommon to see people taking calls from a cafe. Besides the fact that it is loud and hard to do the meeting, it just looks unprofessional. It sounds counterintuitive, but someone who takes calls with a plain white background sitting in a shirt and underwear will appear more professional than someone who wears a full suit but takes calls from a coffee shop. It just sends a message that you don’t really care about the other person and it is more important for you to be in your coffee shop than in a private meeting space with your interlocutor. Perhaps this depends on the office culture you are in, but I can’t imagine hopping on a creative call from a place where the whole conversation can be overheard.  

Strangers

A separate part has to be dedicated to overly social or sensitive strangers. One case stands out: I was told that I type too loud. Sure, a decade of piano may have made my fingers press harder than most people. What surprised me what that it was not anything else that was distracting in the place, everything else but my typing was fine. Not the coffee grinder, not the loud high-schoolers, not anything else. Another one has to be when people casually look at what you’re doing and start commenting on it. While it is great in terms of making friends, it is counterproductive when it comes to getting actual work done. 

Lacking Resources

While coffee shops might have great coffee and food, they lack other things a good office needs. Even though most freelancers need only a laptop to work, they still may want to plug it in, use a desk lamp, have a few hard drives, and perhaps even a mouse — all of this on a nice desk in a comfortable chair. While it is fine to get a few hours done in such a setup, it is not viable long-term. Having a good desk setup also increases productivity, meaning that you can make more money per unit of time while increasing the pleasure you get from working.

Wi-Fi is another problem in coffee shops. Due to the large number of people using it, uploading and downloading content will be largely impossible. If you ever tried to upload 10-20 images to WeTransfer on Starbucks Wi-Fi and succeeded, I want to know your secret.

Closing Thoughts

So, unless you are looking for an unproductive way of socializing at a high cost, coffee shops should be the last place to get work done. Perhaps I am easily distracted and greedy, but it just seems so unprofessional and counterproductive to me.

With all of this in mind, I do sometimes work in a coffee shop when I have to, just like I work on a plane, train, and even while commuting. There is no excuse for not working in a space that has the bare minimum, but I will not settle for the bare minimum in the long-term.

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13 Comments
george andrews's picture

Free wifi, meet new prospective clients, get out of the house, find test models, it all depends on the coffee house; some like the one I go to actually give me free coffee drinks from time to time and refer people to me. As long as you aren't a "Karen".

Illya Ovchar's picture

Well, I am sure there are exceptions, as there are coffee houses that people from one or the other industry go to. Perpahs in this case I am talking about the general idea of working in a coffee shop.

David Pavlich's picture

I agree 100% about coffee shops, but it has nothing to do with working in one and I'll leave it at that.

Victor Boudolf's picture

Shops may be distracting, however *coffee* is a must.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Oh absolutely! Can't imagine it being otherwise.

Edo Photo's picture

Hard disagree*

I work fully remote. And I can tell you that my main office is a Dunkin' donuts. Especially going through covid and being at home for so long, I will go work just about anywhere else in order to just be outside of the house. It makes a big difference in being able to focus. Thats my 2c.

*Starbucks is definitely out, I don't have to worry about them trying to sell me music by blasting it in my ears.

Side note. I'm trying to type just a few sentences and the same ads keep popping up over on itself again and again. We know you guys got to pay the bills but this is not the way to do it. Thx

Illya Ovchar's picture

There is a social aspect to working in a coffee shop. Personally, I prefer being focused and not socializing during work.

Thank you for mentioning the ads! We will take a look. It doesn't show up for me, though.

Edo Photo's picture

I think it's a bit of a social aspect in the sense of feeling like you're not locked in a box staring at a screen for hours. Even the nicest home can start feeling like a jail cell.

That said, when you need to get out of the house everything counts. The breeze, the weather, seeing other humans...maybe it's a reminder of the old days when we were back and forth in the office.

Two things I fear working in a coffee shop. Music playing, children, and those particular customers that only exist to talk nonstop and close proximity to where you are working with loud enough tones that you can hear over your headphones. Nightmarish!

PS - As I'm writing this the same video ad is covering the text box so I have to scroll up. Then the ad at the footer of the page spawns on top of it. Sometimes the takeover comes in from the sides and they're all layered on top of each other.

Now an ad just popped up to the side. I'm using Chrome on Android and it's just a ad parade going on. The worst part is when you close them they pop back up after 10 seconds or so. Sigh.

Tom Reichner's picture

I would assume that when one does work in a coffee shop, it is because one needs a bit of a break and wants to spend some time in a place with atmosphere and people about.

If one needs to get a lot of work done in a focused, disciplined way, then of course a coffee shop is not a good place for that type of work ... but everybody knows that.

As fro distractions, I am able to tune everything out with no effort at all. I have never understood people who say they are distracted by loud noises, people shouting, machines working, etc. I was tired one day when I was at an amusement park with friends, so I just laid on the ground by one of the walkways and slept solid for an hour. Thousands of people walking by, kids yelling, and roller coasters running all around me, and I slept as sound as can be right there on the ground. If loud, active things going on around you are distracting, it is because you do not have the mental or emotional discipline to tune everything out.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Well, my point is that if you're looking to concentrate and focus, a coffee shop is not the place to do it. It is great to socialize, though.

Distractions can be mitigated temporarily. For example, I am currently working from a train because I am traveling. While it is fine, and noise-cancellation headphones help a lot, I would find it hard to do it every day.

Please teach me the art of napping anywhere without headphones. It gets so bad I regularly sleep in my AirPods just to drown out the noise.

Edo Photo's picture

You would be amazed how focused someone can be in a coffee shop ;) I personally can blow through 4 hours of work straight without being tempted to watch YouTube videos, turn on a television, or head to the kitchen and make a sandwich. Even the walk is helpful, nobody's getting younger so got to keep moving.

Roger Cozine's picture

I don't know. I think it depends on your mindset. While not my primary work site, I've done some of my best photo and video edits while at the coffee shop. It's also a perfect place to meet people who may become future clients. The people you meet in the coffee shop could also recommend you to friends who may be needing photography services. Outside of photography, a coffee shop is a great place to mentally interact with people in a casual environment, which stimulates creativity and promotes a sense of satisfaction. By restricting yourself to a desk at home/office, your doing more harm than good.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I see your point, but it is hard for me to agree. My best work was done in an office, at my desk where it is so silent you can hear it. I guess we all have different working styles, but I would suggest you really give the desk/office a proper go.