Why you’re more creative in coffee shops
It is almost a year of WFH (working from home) for many of us. Some of us feel we have become more productive in the quiet isolated comforts of our home. Some of us are not so lucky with other distractions around family, kids, home errands and are longing to get back to our office. But this piece in the BBC talks about the benefits of working at another workplace which is neither home nor office – coffee shops, particularly when it comes to creativity.
“Some of the most successful people in history have done their best work in coffee shops. Pablo Picasso, JK Rowling, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Bob Dylan – whether they’re painters, singer-songwriters, philosophers or writers, people across nations and centuries have tapped into their creativity working away at a table in a café.”
As my colleague Saurabh Mukherjea and his co-author Anupam Gupta highlight in their book “The Victory Project”, creativity is a key element of success in almost any profession and not just the obviously creative fields.
So how do coffee shops help us with our creativity?
“There are many ways coffee shops trigger our creativity in a way offices and homes don’t. Research shows that the stimuli in these places make them effective environments to work; the combination of noise, casual crowds and visual variety can give us just the right amount of distraction to help us be our sharpest and most creative. (So, no, it’s not just that double espresso.)
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that a low-to-moderate level of ambient noise in a place like a cafeteria can actually boost your creative output. The idea is that if you’re very slightly distracted from the task at hand by ambient stimuli, it boosts your abstract thinking ability, which can lead to more creative idea generation.
Another study from 2019, which had similar findings, zeroes in on what’s called “stochastic resonance”: originally observed in animals, it’s the phenomenon in which just the right amount of noise benefits our senses. And while that ‘Goldilocks’ level of noise is different for everyone, audio stimuli in the background also help us improve decision making. Some have even dubbed “the coffee shop effect”. So, the jazz muzak, light conversation and barista banging coffee grounds out of the grinder aren’t a nuisance – they could help you come up with your next magnum opus.
There’s also the fact that in a coffee shop, we’re surrounded by people who’ve come to do the same thing as us, which acts as a motivator. A 2016 study backed up this idea when researchers asked participants sitting next to each other in front of a computer to do a task on the same screen. The study showed that “simply performing a task next to a person who exerts a lot of effort in a task will make you do the same”.
“It’s analogous to going to the gym for a workout,” says Sunkee Lee, assistant professor of organisational theory and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pennsylvania. “One of the biggest things about coffee shops is the social-facilitation effect: you go there, you see other people working and it puts you in a mood where you just naturally start working as well. Just observing them can motivate you to work harder.””