Terrible breakfast sandwiches. Over-caffeinated jitters. Genial small talk. Awkward exploratory Tinder dates happening across the room.
Put together, these things might constitute an array of distractions, and they don’t sound like the ideal work environment. But they make up the sights and sounds of coffee shops all around America, from the shiny, generic corporate chains to the most pretentious hipster paradise. As a freelance writer, they have been my not-so-personal offices for the majority of the past eight years.
It started as a way to shake things up early in my career when I was typically writing belabored essays and trying to convince editors to publish them. But like anything you repeat enough times, it went from habit, to routine, to full-blown dependency. I spent more than four hours at a coffee shop an average of six days a week for a significant portion of my 20s.
If I thought hard enough, I could probably tell you which coffee shop I was in when I wrote any given story over the years. That nearly suffocating aroma of coffee beans that attacks your nostrils the moment the door closes behind you sharpens my focus like a bell being clanged at Pavlov’s pup. I know more than 15 baristas by name. I could tell you what some of them were studying in school. I could give you the gist of one’s book proposal. My only rebuttal to a lecture about how much money I’ve wasted on coffee is how much free coffee I’ve received as result of the rapport I built up with those same baristas.
That type of workday was rendered impossible when the pandemic hit. In obvious ways, I was lucky; my job can be done literally anywhere. It wasn’t made obsolete by the shuttering of any physical space. But at the same time, those coffee shops were where I chose to work.
I can’t imagine anyone having made it through 2020 without some sort of mental health struggle. And yet they say that, despite the very real health and financial consequences of a pandemic, extreme events tend to exaggerate difficulties that are already there, simmering under all the coping mechanisms we’ve created to keep them at bay.
Routines can be powerful elixirs for a number of problems. I’d recommend them to anyone. But when you find something that works, you don’t usually question why exactly it works, and you probably don’t want to dig deeper to see that the problem is more complicated and painful than you’ve labeled it.
My entire work process was upended. But I kept opening up my laptop and typing and doing the work. Writing is writing no matter where you do it. My editor doesn’t care where I was when I wrote this. You might not either.
After I was vaccinated, it felt like I was at a crossroads. I wanted to figure out if going to coffee shops would help me feel engaged with the work once again, if I could handle being around strangers after so much isolation.
So I dipped my toe back into the water with a three-day experiment, at three different coffee shops. It’s not that I wanted writing to be easy again; it never was. I just wanted to figure out what part of me those coffee shops were putting a band-aid over before they were taken away.
* * *
The first day, I eased back into the experience. I went to a coffee shop that I had walked to plenty in the previous few months to grab coffees to go. I went with a plan of doing mostly busy work. Nothing too tough on the brain; the sort of writing you can do while listening to catchy music. The goal was to reacquire a comfort level with being around people and focusing.
I tried to settle in, but my people-watching skills were out of practice. I found myself staring at people, and not liking them for arbitrary reasons. There were two friends meeting up who each vented about different topics, both clearly not listening to what the other was saying. Another customer talked to the barista for 45 minutes in some vaguely non-platonic way. These types of people used to be interesting and innocently funny to me. Everyone has their own story I’d think.
Some guy wearing a weird, fashionable beanie in 84-degree weather was sitting across from me. Thoughts arose like, Why is he wearing that hat? or Who does he think he is? or Could I pull off a hat like that? or Where do you even get a hat like that? or Would it be weird if I asked him where he got his hat?
Still, I stayed. And I chipped away. And those people left and were replaced by new people. And I became less annoyed. And I realized people-watching is not person-watching. You’re not supposed to home in on one person. You’re present at a moment in time of their lives and you’re getting random little snapshots.
Later, I thought that it was OK that those two venting friends weren’t really listening to each other. At least they had someone in their lives to vent to. And, you know, my relationship was once vaguely non-platonic. And I don’t need another hat.
Realistically, I didn’t get all that much work done that day. But I got a little bit done, and navigating the relatively unexciting events around me was enough to distract from the existential dread that tends to come out of showing up each day to push an independent career forward.
* * *
The next day, I went to a coffee shop that doubles as a bar at night. By the time I got there at noon, a few people were already leaning into the bar aspect more than the coffee aspect. But I was ready. People can be loud, but they can’t be much louder than Fleetwood Mac on my headphones.
This day was less about being comfortable around people. It was about a physical reset. It was about being away from home. You might be able to control the elements in your house, but that doesn’t inherently make focusing easier. Sometimes going to work is the only way to make yourself do the work.
I met my girlfriend early in the pandemic and we moved in together in January while still mostly quarantining from the outside world. The journey has been fun, and great, and fulfilling and pretty much without a hitch. But she’s also a writer, and that sort of turned us into co-workers even though we’re writing about different things for different outlets. Frustration might be a little contagious. Procrastination is definitely contagious. Being around someone you love talking to is certainly a distraction. I realized, maybe, even if she wouldn’t admit it, that she could benefit from having me out of the house during her peak writing hours.
This coffee shop was a 25-minute walk from our place, and that was intentional. Walking to a coffee shop is the best possible option if the weather is nice. The walk prepares me. But it’s the walk back that salvages my evening. The stress of work is hard to shake, and a long walk home gets it out of your system better than a 5-foot walk to the couch.
I did real work at the coffee shop bar. I even filed a complicated story to an editor. I was stressed that it might not be good enough, or it might not be what that editor wanted (it was not; I had to rewrite much of it the next week), but shortly after filing that story, I walked home and the worry slowly seeped out of my mind. I got back and felt briefly separated from work. We had a nice night.
* * *
The third day I went to one of those coffee shops full of people like me. That is to say, potentially insufferable people who are trying to make things happen and look eager to tell you about it. This particular place had the phonetic spelling of its name on the coffee cups if that helps give a sense of the general vibe.
I had quite a bit to work on. I was overwhelmed and not confident. I didn’t think I could finish the work I had, and I didn’t know how I would get more work when I did finish. These aren’t rare thoughts in my freelance career.
Routines are good because stability is necessary. But sometimes you fill the day with a plan; the good thoughts aren’t worth the bad thoughts, and packing a structure tightly into your day is the best way to run from them both as best you can. The thing about finding love during the pandemic is that it gave my life one incredible bright spot big enough to let me confront the parts of me that I didn’t want to (to some degree that I wouldn’t dare venture to quantify, she probably saved me from a darkness that I had to reckon with when my routine was stripped away).
Impostor syndrome. Clinical anxiety. The signs of moderate depression and a number of the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The impossible-to-quiet thought that the people I care about will cease to be a part of my life. They’re all right there, somewhere in my brain. Some people have it so much worse, but everybody has something or some nagging combination of things. Work can’t solve those things. But how you fill your days is proof that you’re more than the things that scare you.
I wrote some of what I needed to that day. Not all of it. The people around me were all doing their own thing, and it felt good to be sharing that space. A graphic designer was helping someone with their website. Two friends were meeting for lunch on a work break. Two substitute teachers were comparing lesson plans.
By the end of that day, I remembered why I went to coffee shops. It was more than routine. It was always a reminder that your work exists outside of the four walls in which you perform it. Everyone’s does, and after a year of isolation, it’s probably easy to forget that. Your work matters, otherwise you wouldn’t be getting paid for it. The key is to be proud of it, but not be precious with it. Everyone is trying to play their own part.
I walked home that day knowing that I worked, but more importantly, knowing that I’d be back. I always come back. Because I want to.
* * *
I know I said that you probably don’t care where I am as I was writing this, but just in case you’re curious I thought I’d let you know. I’m on an airplane, because it’s safe to travel again, and I thought I’d enjoy that. And I can write from anywhere.
These days I’m just trying to stack good work and kind decisions, and whatever that adds up to is enough. You might see me at a coffee shop one of these days. I might look pretty focused, but I’ll be totally honest with you: I probably want you to say hello.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by @crystalmariesing/Twenty20