• The Third Place.

  • A discussion on the how the coffee shop has become the third place, somewhere between home and the office.

I have a love-hate relationship with coffee shops, often dubbed “The Third Place”, that is, the place that is neither home nor the office.

Well, my home and my office are the same place, as I have my main workstation at home, but I also tend to often work wherever I happen to be, and that’s why I often find myself in coffee shops working.

However, there are only a few coffee shops where I find myself at home, and it is mostly those that are devoid of a crowd, but still have enough people to not make it feel like I am working all alone at night.

The importance of natural light cannot be understated, as that is key. I always chose my homes with the natural light in mind, as there is nothing worse than to life by artificial light during the day. I once had the experience of living in an apartment without any windows, and I can tell you that I left in the morning and came back late at night, I couldn’t stand the oppressive nature of the place. Fortunately I was only there for six months, and that was already far too long.

Now there is a philosophical/productivity school that states that we should be insulated from the outside world, and another school of thought that states that you should be able to work regardless of your environment. I don’t know – perhaps I am overly sensitive and this is something that I should work on, but I just can’t believe the outside stimulus simply doesn’t matter.

I am actually very particular in the way I work.

My desk at home is almost always devoid of anything but the absolute necessities to work. Normally that’s my iMac or Macbook and it’s paraphernalia, and a notebook and a pen.

Nothing is else is required.

"> If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?" Albert Einstein

I think it most probably is a sign of an empty mind, and, for me, when it comes down to doing something that I can consider work, such as writing, reading company documents, creating proposals, reviewing a project, then I feel that I do indeed need to empty my mind, because that puts me in the best state to work in.

I normally also use a method of time-boxing, giving myself a ‘Pomodoro’ (25 minutes of timed work) to get stuff done, then a short break, and then another ‘Pomodoro’. This is an incredibly effective way of working, because if we manage to get rid of all distractions, and empty our minds, then only the task at hand matters, and that is really fantastic, because it suddenly becomes your entire life – for 25 minutes.

It is the only thing that matters, which means that the quality generally starts to creep up, especially if you do this over time and get plenty of practice at this. I find that it brings me a sense of peace, it’s like getting lost in a quality book. You travel to another dimension, another timezone, another experience.

There is that old adage that if you enjoy your job you will never work a day in your life. Well, I find that the above technique is exactly how I manage to enjoy almost all the tasks that I need to accomplish.

Oh, this was supposed to be about coffee shops. Well, I think I was discussion distractions, ironically, and how some coffee shops (especially busy ones) are full of them. Well, the above technique, if practiced to a high enough level, probably does enable us to work anywhere, anytime, but I am simply not well versed enough to be able to attempt that.

However the coffee shop also acts as this interesting third place in regards to who you can meet there. Sometimes a meeting is not formal enough to do at an office, and also you don’t know the person well enough to invite them to your home, this is where the third place comes into place. A neutral setting where everyone feels comfortable to sound out initial ideas, meet new people, and generally know that it is a safe and acceptable place to meet. Almost like a demilitarized zone between to countries that have a temporary truce.

Most people drink coffee, and if they don’t, then there is always something else.

I find it interesting that in Italy this culture has not taken off so much, and coffee shops tend to be quick pit-stops on the way to somewhere, where you throw a boiling espresso down your throat, and perhaps devour a cornetto in a few gulps. It is purely a transitory place, and can hardly be considered a third place, it’s more like place one-and-a-half, between one (home) and two (work).

In a way, coffee shops in Italy are more based on a social aspect, where you might go for quick coffee with friends, or you personally know the barman there. It’s not a place for focussed work, but more of a grandiose office water cooler.

The issue I have with the American Starbucks model of coffee shops is that they can blur the lines between work and everything else,  and I’m not sure if that is particularly healthy. It tens to cultivate a habit of shallow work, where it is acceptable to be multi-tasking, constantly having ten second break to check your phone, and generally not achieving much of anything.

However, in some cases, shallow work is exactly what the world needs, and perhaps that is best served with a cup of espresso.