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How Can I Stay Productive at the Coffee Shop?

If you’re anything like me…well, you rock! Also, you spend a lot of time working at the local Starbucks, Panera Bread, or anywhere else that slings java and Wi-Fi. And why not? These coffee-shop offices offer a great change of scenery when you need a break from the cubicle. They’re also incomparably convenient when you’re traveling and need a temporary place to set up shop.

However, working in a public setting can be maddening, what with all the espresso-maker noise and chatterbox patrons and iffy Wi-Fi networks. How can you stay productive when faced with these and other hassles? I’ve got five tips that’ll help you tune out the troublemakers and get your work done.


Earplugs can be a lifesaver when you're trying to work in a noisy coffee shop.

1. Bring earplugs. It never fails: there’s always some doofus yelling into his phone or some giggly group of high-schoolers making a ruckus–all while you’re trying to work! Dirty looks won’t stop the noise (trust me, I’ve tried), so your only other option is to filter it. Buy a pack of soft-foam earplugs at the local drugstore and keep them in your laptop bag in case of noise emergencies. Alternately, bring your favorite noise-isolating earphones and jack into your smartphone or MP3 player. Soft music is way better than listening to those braying ninnies.

2. Create a napkin wrist-rest. The coffee may be hot, but it’s a good bet your tabletop will be icy cold–especially during the winter months. To give your mouse hand a break, grab a few napkins and fold them in half to create a padded, insulated wrist-rest. It’s a simple hack, but it makes a world of difference.

TruConnect MiFi 2200

The TruConnect MiFi 2200 is a pay-as-you-go mobile hotspot.

3. Plan for Wi-Fi outages. Nothing kills your spirit like getting all set up at a table, waiting 10 minutes for your laptop to boot, and then discovering that the store’s Wi-Fi is on the fritz. Follow the Boy Scout motto and be prepared: pack a mobile hotspot like the Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 or TruConnect MiFi 2200. These no-contract gizmos are great for “emergency” situations when you gotta have Wi-Fi, but don’t want to pay $40-50 month for two years.

Kensington Portable Combination Laptop Lock

Lock down your laptop with this inexpensive Kensington combination lock.

4. Secure your laptop. Free refills on coffee means frequent trips to the bathroom, and unattended laptops have a way of walking off. That’s the last thing you need to worry about, so enlist some hardware help like the $25 Kensington Portable Combination Laptop Lock. It combines a compact, coiling cable with a four-digit combination-based T-bar lock. It works with any laptop that has a security slot (most models do). Just wrap the cable around a bolted-down table leg or some other fixed point, and chances are good a thief won’t even bother trying to nab your notebook.

5. Go the library instead. Libraries are roomier, better lit, and infinitely quieter than any coffee shop. Plus, you won’t end up spending money on extra goodies like cookies and pastries, which, let’s face it, are carbohydrate bombs that’ll leave you sluggish and unproductive. Alas, most libraries don’t serve coffee, but weren’t you trying to cut down on the caffeine anyway?

Okay, those are my tips; now let’s hear yours. What tricks have you learned for preserving productivity when you’re working at a java joint?

  • Jeff G.

    Great post Rick! I often have a hard time finding a table at coffee shops. One trick is to claim one with your coat before ordering your coffee.

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  • alain

    For those times where I have to be on the road, I have a cigarette lighter inverter and a WokFi antenna that I made from a 10″ Wok strainer, a 3/4″ Romex(r) connector, a couple of finder washers for the Romex(r) connector, and a type A female to male USB extension cable.

    I’ve found that I can park in the back of the parking lot of a business that offers free wifi during the slow part of the day (I don’t want to drive away paying customers) and get a usable signal.