To Work or Not to Work

Published December 8, 2021, The FXBG Magazine

I became a part of the coffee shop crowd—only to discover that my role in the scene contradicts a scientific trend of productivity

by Jean Mondoro

Halfway through the semester and overwhelmed with work, I decide to go downtown to Agora.  My usual workspace is at home or in an empty room on campus, but I need a change of scenery.  I order a cup of Earl Grey tea, choose a seat in the middle of the shop, and pull out my laptop.  Then, I proceed to look around and not make much progress at all.  Everything around me steals my attention from my writing.

Worn wooden floors creek with the movement of customers.  A bell sings, announcing each guest.  Music with a harmonica plays softly overhead as people sit silently with laptops or converse with one another.  The back door slams shut as some venture outdoors to enjoy the seating in the cool autumn air.  Brightly colored walls echo the friendly and welcoming environment of Agora.  The back room is a magnet for those striving to be productive, although a chess set occupies one table, indicating that perhaps work can wait a game or two.  That part of the shop intrigued me, but there wasn’t room for me back there this time.

It turned out that many of the people were equally distracted by the scenery. Of the 10 to 20 people in the coffee shop, two maintain focus on their work.  One appears to be on a call, pencil and paper in hand, taking notes.  Another, presumably a student, is fixed to her work on her laptop.  But the shop is small, and the tables are close together.  Two others are seated at the chess table, laughing and joking.  An elderly couple sits quietly with one another, and are joined later by a second couple, all of whom carry on in relaxing fellowship.  

I look around Agora and feel mostly satisfaction, but also a bit of uneasiness.  While this environment is peaceful and appealing, there is a sense that I do not belong here creeping in the back of my mind.  All around me are people who are here with the purpose to work and seem to be succeeding.  I, too, came here with the intention of being productive.  But I have yet to accomplish this goal.  

Snippets of conversations interrupt the words I am trying to write, and I end up focusing more on the sounds around me than the work in front of me.  Other customers who push their way through the front door take their time while ordering to converse with the employees.  Everyone I see has their phones readily available, almost waiting for an excuse to turn away from their work.  Witnessing more and more distractions, I begin to believe that all of us are here in Agora to pull out our laptops but not to actually be productive.

Glancing behind me in the back room, I saw the student again.  Her screen is propped on her lap, and she is holding a hot drink in her right hand.  Although her eyes never leave her laptop, I can’t say for sure if she is actually doing work.  Perhaps it’s her email or Instagram page that’s open in front of her.  Or maybe she is playing the latest popular online game.  She could be just like me, keeping her fingers ready but not doing the work which she appears to be doing.

Coffee shops like Agora have always seemed to hold this reputation of being the perfect place for productivity.  According to an article from 2020 in Coffee or Die Magazine, the coffee shop culture reaches back to 17th century Europe.  These settings were popular among the working class as they provided affordable refreshment and a place to share ideas freely.  By the 1900s, coffee shops housed discussions ranging from art and music to philosophy and politics.  Today, they are utilized primarily as a grab-and-go or a designated location for productivity.  The modern phenomenon of people being able to work in a noisy and busy environment has even gained the attention of scientific research.

Based on a study completed in recent years by Onno van der Groen, a neuropsychology researcher, the “coffee house effect” has been proven true.  This is the apparent reality that one focuses better and is more productive in the setting of a public coffee shop rather than an office or home.  His work shows that background noise plays a critical role in one’s productivity, and that is a defining characteristic of the coffee shop setting.

For years, society has seen this trend of working in coffee shops.  Some mock it while others embrace it.  Research like that of van der Groen’s even supports the concept scientifically.  If it’s true that the people around me–even the student I suspect of scanning Instagram–are genuinely being productive, then perhaps I don’t fit into this intriguing coffee shop setting as well as I thought.  

I survey the room once again.  A man has come in and settled down with his coffee and computer at a desk, tucked away between two walls, resembling a cubicle.  Another woman enters the shop, orders at the front counter, and walks out the back door to the patio, a backpack of work slung over her shoulder.  I am still gazing in awe at the scene around me.  The desire to be one of them resonated more powerfully in my mind.

I have always loved the idea of working in a coffee shop.  Now, minutes away from downtown Fredericksburg, I have that opportunity.  But when I am here to be productive, I usually am not.  I just can’t stop scanning the room–reading every poster on the bulletin board, wondering about every sentence I catch from random conversations.  I don’t know how anyone could focus.

As my eyes continue to gaze about me and my mind never stops spinning, I begin to feel that I don’t belong here.  Those around me are apparently focused on their work, and scientific research has proven the positive impact of a coffee shop environment for productivity.  Yet here I am, not being productive but still wanting to be in this place, with these people, as a member of this coffee shop crowd.  Maybe I am the only one here for the experience rather than the productivity.  I feel awkward and out of place.

But then I thought, what’s so wrong with being part of this crowd for the sake of being there, rather than to be productive?  I may not be writing while I’m sitting there, but I’m enjoying a good cup of tea and being a part of a scene which could easily provide inspiration for later productivity.  Coming to a coffee shop for a change of scenery and a chance to take a break from the pressure of work is sometimes the key to being productive later on.  Some go to coffee shops to get things done, and others go to enjoy the environment.  I shouldn’t feel out of place simply because my purpose in that setting differs from those around me.

Settling down in an armchair at the back of the shop, I hold my cup of tea in my hands and survey Agora.  John Denver’s voice sings “Leaving On a Jet Plane” gently overhead.  Two women and a baby are walking away from the community table as I enter.  A billboard next to the doorway is covered in advertisements of Fredericksburg events and businesses.  I hear a man on a business call and watch as two customers come in and out with backpacks, preparing for some effective work.  Many of those who frequent Agora with me are here to be productive, and are often successful in that mission.  Although I am not one of them, I am perfectly content to sit here with my Earl Grey tea and enjoy being a part of the scene.

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