It’s something you know intuitively: when you can’t get past your mental block at 2:30pm and you’ve been wildly unproductive all day, or when you’ve got a mountain of items on your to-do list but colleagues keep approaching you at your desk, you snap your laptop closed and hop to the closest cafe.
Once you’re there, you find that you’re able to get through a task in 20 minutes that would have otherwise taken more than an hour. You’re laser-focused and energetic in a way that doesn’t come down to the caffeine in your coffee cup.
You’re probably not the only one there with your laptop open, either, and it’s the reason why students and professionals alike have nominated their favourite ‘coffices’ around town.
So what is it about cafes that makes you so productive?
1. Your brain loves a change of scenery
A familiar routine is great – up to a point. As human beings, we’re wired to want newness and novelty in our lives.
“Homo sapiens were the only group of early hominids to emigrate over the entire world, which entailed great risk,” wrote US-based psychologist Marvin Zuckerman in a briefing paper authored by neuroscience writer Brenda Patoine about the need for novelty.
“So I think humans as a species are characterised by novelty, and intensity-seeking.”
Not only this, but your brain releases dopamine – the ‘feel-good’ chemical – when you’re stimulated or doing something pleasurable. Dopamine is associated with addiction and lust, but it’s also closely tied with motivation.
Rather than being its own reward, this chemical acts for you to seek out reward – which is what drives you to a different environment for the satisfaction of getting work done. A fantastic way to trick yourself into getting your dopamine hits is to set and accomplish small tasks, which will in turn inspire you to want to repeat the associated behaviour.
On top of this, moving to a different space exercises your brain’s neuroplasticity, or its capacity to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. You’ve probably known the experience of making a miraculous mental breakthrough after you’ve relocated.
What’s happening is that your brain is reorganising its pathways to get tasks done: you’re not more efficient, per se; rather, you’re thinking about the same issue in a different light.
2. You’re victim to your own routine
If you’ve fallen into bad habits in your workspace or your home office, you’re in danger: your brain associates certain environments with certain behaviours. No wonder you find it so hard to focus when you’re working from home in your pajamas.
This is exactly why breaking away from stale surroundings can help you break habits and get you into settled into your workflow.
“Environmental cues are essential when it comes to habit formation, in part because the brain is excellent at connecting an environment with a specific situation,” psychiatrist Ralph Ryback wrote in Psychology Today. So if you know you get a lot done at cafes, your brain will connect the environment with higher levels of productivity and the virtual cycle repeats itself.
But since you can’t be working from a cafe all the time, try to pay attention to what it is that boosts your productivity and find ways to incorporate that in your daily workspace.
3. A little bit of noise is helpful
No, seriously – research has shown that the steady low to medium level of noise at a cafe actually helps with concentration. “Both moderate and high noise levels lead to more abstract processing as compared to a low noise level,” Ravi Mehta, Juliet Zhu and Amar Cheema wrote in an article published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
But not too high – a moderate level of noise, organically provided by a cafe, is the sweet spot. This is why apps and sound files of coffee shop noises, such as Coffitivity, have popped up, and designed for frustrated workers to plug in mimic immersing themselves in the cafe environment.
Low-level noise, or having your mind on other tasks, is also part of why you stumble across sudden eureka moments in the shower or during mundane tasks such as brushing your teeth.
4. You actually want to get work done
Intention matters. When your job involves sitting behind a desk and trying to fill the hours between 9am to 5pm, it’s easy to lose a sense of time.
So when you’ve had enough and make the decision to escape the office and move to a different space, it’s not merely that a different environment is conducive to productivity: it’s that you made a conscious decision with the conscious intention of actually doing work.
“For the last 400 years, an unstated assumption of science is that human intention cannot affect what we call physical reality,” Standford University professor William Tiller wrote in the book The Intention Experiment.
“Our experimental research of the past decade shows that, for today’s world and under the right conditions, this assumption is no longer correct.”
The next time you’re suffering from a mindblock and thinking of heading down to the usual cafe for your coffee hit, consider bringing your laptop with you and making the most of their free WiFi. If you’re Sydney-based, here’s our guide to the top 10 ‘coffices’ around the CBD.
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