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Creative summer: working in a café

Personal productivity

Creative summer: working in a café

Can deserting your desk for a public location with better coffee spark fresh insights?

Amy Borrett works in the Wren cafe, London © Charlie Bibby/FT

The FT Work & Careers team recently took a class in how to become more creative at work and learnt that getting away from your desk is key. In this weekly summer series, our writers try different out-of-office activities to see whether they help develop creativity.

It is easy to feel uninspired by the monotony of working every day at the same desk. So, struggling with motivation for an article I had been working on for over a week, I decided to spend an afternoon in a café — to see if working in a new place and surrounding myself with different people would make me more creative.

Research has found that moderate levels of “ambient noise” — around 70 decibels, or about the level of conversation in a café — improves performance on creative tasks. Emboldened by this promise of a productive afternoon, I left my desk and found a table in The Wren, only a minute’s walk from the Financial Times.

Even for an independent coffee shop, The Wren boasts an unusual location. Nestled inside St Nicholas Cole Abbey on Queen Victoria Street, customers sip their coffee at tables located inside the nave.

Although “St Nick’s” is thought to have been built in the 12th century, the building that exists today is a reconstruction — originally rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London, it was again severely damaged in the Blitz and reopened in 1962.

The beamed ceiling and airy space was certainly a change from the modern, industrial surroundings of my desk in Bracken House. With research suggesting that low ceilings prompt feelings of confinement, while high ceilings can encourage concepts of freedom and so stimulate creative thinking, it seemed a promising location for a fruitful afternoon’s work.

The Wren is located in the City of London and so it was no surprise that the tables around me were busy with business meetings and catch-ups over coffee. Unfortunately, this provided the perfect distraction from my work, and I succumbed to the temptation of eavesdropping on the conversations happening around me.

Heading towards the end of August, for the most part this meant the usual remarks on the capriciousness of British weather and an exchange of holiday pleasantries.

But when a chat escalated into an impassioned lovers’ quarrel at the table next to me it became challenging to focus on my laptop screen. Their back-and-forth gave me plenty to ponder, but unfortunately no creative thoughts.

When the couple eventually departed, I could settle back into work. And although there was an animated business meeting being conducted in French, my rudimentary language skills meant that I could not elicit anything interesting enough to distract me from the task in hand.

When I returned to the office a few hours later I had managed to get some work done, although a lot less than I had intended. But, had working in a café increased my creativity?

While the constant chatter and opportunity to earwig offered more distraction than I had anticipated, the change of environment left me feeling refreshed.

Surrounding myself with the conversations of strangers in the café had meant that I could let my mind wander. And by allowing myself to get distracted I had taken the pressure off — which meant that when I did return to my work the creative inertia had gone.

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