How to Get Work Done in a Café

by: Nico Lang

1.     Pick a spot with unlimited wireless access.

 The most important step to café productivity is to make sure that you have access to unlimited productivity for the day.  If you are a poor grad student like myself, paying every hour or two hours for renewed internet access is too expensive for your sad, sad bank account, and at such cafes, you have to be choosy about when you log on.  Because I like to take “productivity breaks”—which mostly consist of looking at cat memes or looking at pictures of my friends’ babies—I am not down with the insistence that I need be absolutely focused all the time when I’m working.  I like the space to sit, go at my own pace and let the productivity happen.  It’s much easier to do that when you can afford to sit in the same place for eight hours without filing for bankruptcy.

Note: Bourgeois Pig, this is why I love you, but I’m not in love with you. Loving you is expensive. If we are going to work this out, you need to get your shit together.

2.     Bring headphones.

If you frequent the same coffee shop—as I do—you know that building a coffee community and relationships with the people you work around is important.  I work two or three days out of the week at Dollop, a coffee shop in Chicago’s Buena Park, and I’m there so often that I can tell which barista programmed the mix for the day.  (Max’s mixes are totally the best, if only for the preponderance of early 90’s R&B.)

However, being a regular can lead to lots of time-sucking conversations, which is especially problematic if you are three days behind on a deadline.  (This never happens to me, obviously, but I’ve heard it happens to other people.)  Thus, I find it helpful to not just bring headphones but to bring those giant headphones that block out all sound and human interaction.  Some people wear them as a statement that says, “I like music so much that I want it to make me deaf,” but I personally see it as a way to mark yourself off as conversationally quarantined.  Trespassers will be shot on sight.

3.     Pace yourself on coffee.

It’s important to make sure that you stay awake the whole time—or least mostly awake—and crashes happen to even the most seasoned coffee addicts.  Thus, you make also want to explore the smoothie and tea menus at your local café and to avoid cafes with unlimited refills at all costs.  Drinking that much coffee is just dangerous.

4.     Do not sit near the window, ever.

Some people adore the window seats at cafes, which is understandable.  Everyone who isn’t Tilda Swinton loves the sun—because it gives you lots of helpful vitamins and makes you a happier person.  However, a view of the outside world is the kiss of death at a café, especially if happens to be a beautiful day.  Because on that day, no matter what, a parade of people who look jubilant and enjoying life will march past you, and it’s hard to focus when you are an unwitting participant in an IPod commercial.  Instead, I recommend finding the “Mafia Table,” the one all the way in the back where absolutely no one will spot you, you will see no one enjoying life and you can pretend that the apocalypse has already occurred outside.  No one wants to skip along to Feist’s “1234” in that.

 5.     Make friends, but not too good of friends, with the staff and other patrons.

As previously mentioned, the best part of constantly working in a public space is the Cheers-effect.  I love going to a café where everyone knows my name, my coffee order, how many coffees I probably pre-gamed with and how long it’s going to be before I crash and probably pass out for just a minute.  I love being able to share a table with people I don’t know in other parts of my life, that I have specific bits and in-jokes with that only exist in this space, and I adore running into them on the street and introducing them to those I’m with as my “coffee friend.”

With that said, space is limited at almost any café you go to, and let’s be honest: if you aren’t fighting for a table, the café probably isn’t very good.  In the age of Yelp, when you know about a great place, almost everyone does, too, and if you live in Wicker Park, Williamsburg or Silver Lake, they’ve totally been going there for years, before it got popular.

Thus, finding a spot can be a little like The Hunger Games, Survivor or Real Housewives: you’re not there to make friends.  You can be nice to people, but finding the perfect spot is the endgame.  The other day, I saw a guy I have a coffee crush on at a bar and refused to actually talk to him—because I knew one day that we might have to fight over a table.  Like Katniss Everdeen, I can’t let feelings get in the way of survival.  It’s him or me.

6.     Always be looking for a better spot.

Like apartment hunting in New York, LA or Chicago, you should never be satisfied with what you have.  Even if you think you found the perfect spot, there will always be a better table, one with better lighting, more comfortable cushions and that perfect amount of back support.  Working for too long has the ability to turn you into Gollum, and I like my spine the way it is, all upright.

In order to get good at this, you need to perfect your peripheral vision.  To do so, I recommend training sessions for those who are not already peripherally inclined.  Read books out of the corner of your eyes.  Get wrap around glasses that perfect your vision in every direction.  Practice whipping your eyes back and forth, like Willow Smith having an oracular seizure.  Engage in more staring contests with random strangers and learn how to squint from the best, like Clint Eastwood and the Taco Bell Chihuahua.  Just whatever you do, be prepared, always be closing and never take your eyes off the prize, even if the prize is always changing.

7.     Stay off Facebook.

Look, I know your friends are great and that you love them and that you really want to tell everyone how great they are in alternating lowercase and uppercase letters.  But they are still going to be there after you finish that paper that’s due tomorrow and worth half of your final grade, I promise.  If this is hard for you, there are programs out there that will block Facebook momentarily to allow you to be more productive.  You can do this.  Be strong.

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Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a columnist for HEAVEMedia. At HEAVE, Nico writes a column on film called Found Footage and talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Elsewhere in podcasting, Lang hosts Broad Shoulders, a monthly podcast for Chicago’s Live Lit community. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington PostChicago TribuneLA Times, the New Gay and on their mother’s refrigerator. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on the Facebook.

Follow In Our Words on Facebook and Twitter.

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2 responses to “How to Get Work Done in a Café

  1. Love it. My default cafe close to home is the Halsted Caribou in Boystown (bigger and way more chill than the Broadway ‘Bou!) May have to venture up to Buena one of the these days. Bull will avoid you if you have your chunky headphones on…. :-)

  2. This works for you, obviously, but I don’t need wireless access, because I only write when I write “out there” (or sit there looking pissed, which amounts to my “visual headphones.”) (That and I have hi-speed cable Internet access at home.) Web-based research I do after I write and Facebook sucks (my opinion), so I don’t go there. Doesn’t matter what music’s playing: it’s part of the background noise I use to shut out the world. I sometimes sit at a window seat and forget to enjoy ignoring the people walking by; bummer, but I get my words out. I drink one cup of coffee to start, then one of tea to keep me going and may toss in another cup of coffee if the first was good or if my bladder hasn’t dragged me to the loo already. (I’m not British: “loo” is a shorter word.) I never get too friendly with the café folks not because it’s a strategy, but because I’m not friendly (which is why Facebook sucks.) Always looking for a better spot, which boils down to (a) closer to home, (b) better coffee and (c) enough tables to create my own “Stay away” zone without resorting to the obvious, like flipping the chairs upside-down onto the tables and moving the “Caution: Wet Floor!” sign between me and the unwashed. (Once, I got asked by a paper-capped androgynous thing why the floor was wet. I answered “Coffee makes me pee.” I don’t go to that café anymore. They apparently hate facts.)

    Keep writing, anywhere you can.

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