Coffee shops and programming... now with science!

Remember that scene in Family Guy, where there are two guys in a coffee shop and one asks if the other will watch him work? You don’t? Okay, fine:

Guy #2: Hey, getting some writing done there buddy?

Guy #1: Yeah, setting up in public so everybody can watch me type my big screenplay.

Guy #2: Me too. All real writers need to be seen writing otherwise what’s the point, right?

Guy #1: You should totally write that down!

Guy #2: Okay, will you watch me?

Funny? Yes. We’ve all seen these people in our local Starbucks – sitting, on their laptops, diligently working away for the world to see. Go home you have probably said under your breath. Nobody wants to see you arrogantly type out in public (I certainly have never said that, but it’s because I’m half Canadian and therefore 50% nicer than the average American).

But is there a reason people work in coffee shops, other than to show off their assiduous lifestyle?

Well, apparently it can help you be more creative.

Researchers at the University of Illinois conducted an experiment to determine how ambient noise can affect creativity:

This paper examines how ambient noise, an important environmental variable, can affect creativity. Results from five experiments demonstrate that a moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks and increases the buying likelihood of innovative products. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity. Process measures reveal that a moderate (vs. low) level of noise increases processing difficulty, inducing a higher construal level and thus promoting abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing and thus impairs creativity.

The subjects were exposed to differing levels of ambient noise and they were tested on their creativity by taking Remote Associates Tests. The researchers found that a moderate level of noise (which they classify as ~70db) helps raise cognitive awareness and therefore increases your creativity. Coffee shops, if you haven’t guessed yet, are in that same decibel level range and make for perfect creativity booster.

This level of ambient noise keeps your brain at a state of heightened awareness, where it is always engaged and actively thinking, calculating, and processing data. It’s quiet enough that it’s not a distraction, and there’s enough different noises going on (people talking, footsteps, doors opening and closing, coffee grinding, milk steaming, etc) your brain can’t focus on one single noise, and therefore throws it in the background and tunes it out. Coffee shops are also “safe” – most people are comfortable in them and don’t worry about the people around them, which allows their mind to get absorbed in their work.

As programmers, we tip toe this weird world between art and science. We need the math and reasoning skills of a scientist but the creative process of an artist. Coffee shops can help stem the creative side if you’re having a hard time finding the artist inside.

But what about those times where you’re 3 blocks away from the nearest Starbucks and have hit the creative wall? Enter Coffitivity. The goal is to allow someone to throw some headphones on and simulate the experience of being in a coffee shop. They have a few different loops, ranging from morning coffee shops to university lunch hangouts.

I’ve been listening to it for a few weeks and so far I think it works pretty well. After the first few minutes I forget I have headphones on and quickly get engrossed in whatever tasks I’m working on. (I’m even listening to it as I write this)

My only qualm at the moment is that the loops seem to be pretty short. After a while it starts getting distracting hearing the same woman’s laugh every 10 minutes. Kind of annoying. But if you’re dying to hear a coffee shop in a pinch, you can’t beat it.