Worm From Starbucks

in Be Productive Bro

How To Actually Get Work Done From A Coffee Shop

I used to walk past my local Starbucks and look down my nose at the hipster types inside, with their ipads, netbooks and, god forbid, moleskine notebooks laid out on the table next to their $7 freakachino lattes. I mean… who do they think they’re kidding, if not watching films they’re, yet again, tweaking their FaceBook profile. I firmly believed that no-one produced anything of value sitting on a coffee shop sofa.

Just over a year later, I’m far less cynical and 90% of my day is spent in coffee shops and cafes of some sort, knocking back cups of black coffee (green tea lately – almost the same buzz with some health benefits and less of the jitteriness) and being just as productive, if not more so, then when I used to spend my days in a home office. I also own a couple moleskine’s that I write in when I want to feel like Hemingway without… you know… any of his talent!

I would actually say that if your plan is to actually make money online, in any serious fashion, while on the road or living abroad then being able to work in mildly social settings like coffee shops, hotel lobbys and the occasional quiet restaurant is a skill worth picking up.

Here are my tips for not getting caught in the facebook trap – where you open up your laptop all eager like, completely forget what you had to do & then spend 3 hours browsing Facebook – when you next sit down at the coffee shop and whip out your shiny macbook/ugly IBM/lesser computer:

Make a plan/to-do list before you leave the house

The simplest tip I can give you is best implemented before you head off for a morning/afternoon at your local cafe. Sit and write down or type (in Evernote I hope) all the small tasks you want to get done throughout the day.

I promise you, as soon as you head out your mind will go blank – those vital tasks that seemed urgent when you woke up will take some serious effort to be remembered. A simple list can save the hassle. Look into GTD methods if you want to go deeper on this.

Close your email app/page

For some strange reason, as soon as I sit down to work in a mildly social setting, I’m like a cat who just broke in to a yarn store, everything around me becomes one giant distraction/playtoy. For this reason, I like to check my emails for a set amount of time through gmail (usually 10 minutes), and then close the tab and turn off email notifications for around an hour or so to reduce those “oooh, new email, let me check it” moments and stay focused.

I tried using a mac app called self control for a while, it allows you to set a blacklist of websites with an adjustable countdown timer. Until it’s timer reaches the 0:00 mark, you cant access those websites through any browser – and quitting the app, even uninstalling it, do nothing to remove the restriction. It’s pretty hardcore, but might come in handy if you really have no self control.

Decent Music + Headphones

Second to decent headphones that block out peoples chatter/grinding coffee machines/the cafe staff’s angry comments about you abusing their free wi-fi, finding good music, bi-nural beats or white noise generators is a good way let people know you are wired in and keep your mind clear. Some suggestions:

The Study Music Project is great for when you just need to fully concentrate, like when writing content or reading an in-depth report/tutorial. It lacks vocals that sometimes distract you, and all the classical songs/melodies have this calm, pleasant vibe that put you in a positive state. This playlist got me through University. The illustrations in the videos are cool to watch during down-time too.

White Noise – Finch reguarly sips from the white noise water fountain in his quest for increasing productivity while working online, read his article for more information and check out the white noise generator website here.

Binural beats – another tool that Finch reccomends, not something I use but worth checking out (sample here)

Add Some Urgency

The battery on my macbook is scary old. I mean it’s probably had more then 2000 charge cycles so the amount of time I get on it is pretty low (1 hour 30 minutes, if I’m lucky). Whenever I head to a cafe with wi-fi but no power outlets, there is this strange occurrence where I suddenly notice I have 30 minutes left on my battery, and end up powering through more work then I had done for the previous hour, right up until my battery hits the 0% mark. That sense of urgency, the fact that I have to head home when the battery dies and probably wont get much more work done when I do, gives me a productivity jolt in the behind.

Set yourself a leaving time for the cafe, or end up kidding yourself and stretching 10 minute tasks over 2 hours. Check out the pomodoro technique for an interesting, time based productivity method.

If You Want To Socialize… Socialize! If You Want To Get Shit Done…

The truth is, most cafes are designed to be comfortable social settings for hipsters to sit around buying over priced (but tasty) lattes and eating carrot cake. If you want to get out of the house/office to sit and think for a while, or if you want to catch up with your old mate: leave your laptop at home and enjoy your social/relaxing time.

Similarly, if you want to get some shit done, texting your mates to join you for a coffee and a catch up and expecting to finish anything, simply because you packed your laptop is not a good idea.

Some times you just have to take your time & your goals seriously, ignore your friends calls/texts for half a day (it’s fine, just buy first rounds when you meet up in the evening to make up for it) and do the work.

Leave a Comment


  1. Good tips Lewis. I also use a browser plug-in called Stay Focused. It blocks sites for for a length of time that you set. I never realized how strong my habit to check email/twitter/Facebook in the morning, so blocking the sites was the best move for me in the morning.

    Rescue Time is another plug-in that tracks your productivity time. Its pretty cool to see your stats at the end of the day.

    – Ray

    • Thanks for the recommendations Ray, I’m a fan of rescue time but never took the steps to set it up properly so it produced accurate reports.

      I hear you on the email/twitter/facebook morning loop, although mine includes HackerNews & DC forums, an easy way to get de-railed first thing in the morning!

    • Cheers Joe! Yeah the white noise is a bit too much, I tried using binaural beats (a youtube video playing on repeat) for a couple hours – it was one of those “I’m not really sure if this works” type things.

      The science behind the use of frequencies seems solid, will maybe try it out again soon.


  • Meet Justin Cooke, Adsense Flipper: Work & Travel Series February 25, 2012

    […] I was on Khao San Road in Bangkok a couple of weeks ago, trying to write a blog post from a cafe there.  I was able to finish and publish the post, but I ended up rushing it and wasn’t as happy with how it came out as I might have otherwise been.  Ultimately, I prefer a “home base” of sorts that allows me to buckle down and get my work done.  I’m still in SE Asia and can explore every couple of months, but the home base allows me to settle in and get to work in a comfortable setting when I need to. (For a great post on working from coffee shops, check out this article.) […]