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On "café working"
What makes it work?
I am a serial café worker.
I’m not sure when this obsession with working in cafés started, but it’s lasted for years and survived several moves, one of which across country.
So yes, I’d say I’m a veritable café worker.
Searching “laptop” in my Google Photos brings up images of dozens of cafés, accumulated over years of perfecting my “pick café with unlimited (free) water source, enough sunlight but not too bright, and quick access to a clean bathroom” strategy.
My café working ways almost didn’t survive my move to Vietnam in 2021. For months, I contented myself with our dining table in our one-bedroom, then the home office when we moved to a two-bedroom.
I didn’t think it was viable to work in a café in Vietnam. I was too concerned with a) my laptop/valuables/dignity being stolen while I’m in the bathroom, b) it raining on me while I’m walking to my destination with my laptop in my (shower-proof but by no means water-proof) backpack, or c) arriving after a 30-minute hike to find my café of choice packed with no free table.
These seemed like insurmountable obstacles, so I continued to hack away at my keyboard at home, often suffering from the “couch looks reeeeeally comfortable” syndrome.
But the Café Gods are kind, and at some point during Ho Chi Minh City’s hard lockdown, a new café opened up close to home. For months, I gazed out at the café from my balcony—very much closed but sparkling with fairy lights in the evenings.
When things opened up again, I began frequenting the café, bringing my Kindle and settling down for hours on their couch. And one day I just got so tired of being cooped up in the flat that I brought my laptop down for a work sesh.
And just like that, my café working self was revived from its near death. Over several hours, I happily typed and clicked away, oblivious to the world around me, enjoying my Nitro Cold Brew and unlimited free drinking water.
Since that fateful day, I’ve been back to the café multiple times a week. I’m probably working from there more often than I’m working from home these days.
Why does it… work?
Since reviving my café working habit, I’ve been puzzling over the question of why (for me) it’s so much easier to work effectively and for longer hours in a café compared to working in my home office. For some reason, I find it easier to motivate myself and stay focused, and I just “get shit done” without dilly-dallying or procrastinating on things I don’t want to do.
For some reason, when I’m in a café, I’m able to tune out everything, the café music (which is rather loud in this café where I’m currently sat typing this post), the conversation, the people moving about. Whereas if I’m at home, I have to be in an absolutely silent room, with no distraction whatsoever. If my partner’s playing music in the front room and I could faintly hear it through the door, I couldn’t work. I have to ask him to use his earphones, or I’ve got to put in earphones myself to block out the sound.
When I’m faced with a task that’s especially dull or time-consuming, I find it very difficult to work up a motivation to get started at home. Whereas if I just head down to the café, without fail I’m able to hack away at this supposedly boring task for hours on end with minimal suffering. I often even end up enjoying it, usually.
So what is it about café working that makes it work? Why do some of us choose to become café workers at risk of getting our valuables stolen during bathroom visits, not finding a table, or going bankrupt one expensive coffee at a time?
Here’s my theory
Based on my super scientific study with a sample of one (me!), no hypothesis, and no control group, I put forth the following theory, which I shall christen “Why café working works”:
Café working works because:
The act of going to a café with the explicit purpose of working reinforces our resolve to work. If you’ve gone to the trouble of traveling somewhere in order to work, that makes it more likely for you to actually work once you’ve reached your destination.
Being outside the house injects a “fun” element into the work. You’re still doing (often) boring work tasks, but being physically at a café where people usually come to have a good time psychologically makes the experience of working more fun.
There’s always an end time to café visits. You know your time at the café is limited, which leads to you working more efficiently. It’s unlike working at home where you can literally work all day and all night (and still get nothing done).
There could also be a social aspect, where because you’re being seen to be working by other café goers, you feel an obligation to match reality to that perception. I’m not entirely convinced by this though, hence why this didn’t get accorded bullet-point status in my extremely scientific theory.
I’m also still entirely puzzled as to why I’m able to work with music in a café, and not at home. It’s not just ambient music as well. The café is playing all sorts of modern pops and classics, plus songs I don’t know. And loud. This is the kind of background noise I’ll never be able to work though at home, but somehow poses no trouble whatsoever in a café.
What do you think?
And now I turn the thinking hat over to you. Whether you are or aren’t a café worker, have a think and let me know:
Why does café working work (or not work)?
Think of your experience working in a café and see if you can come up with a theory of your own. Or if you’ve never worked in a café, I encourage you to give it a tryand conduct your own extremely scientific study.
Send a reply, leave a comment, and share this with someone whose thought you’d like to hear.
Until next Friday…. Stay thoughtful,
I’m also what you might call a café hopper, though I don’t really “hop” as such. I tend to just go to a café and plant myself there for hours on end, pretending to read my Kindle while really getting overdosed on social media or (more recently) chess.
I wonder how many people in my apartment building did the same. Seeing that most of the people who frequent the café now live in my building, I gather a lot of them did. In this case, literally keeping the lights on might have also metaphorically kept the lights on.
But please don’t leave your laptop or valuables out while you’re taking bathroom breaks. Seeing other people do this always makes me nervous, and I wouldn’t want to subject my reader to such unnecessary losses.