As a freelance writer working part-time for a content marketing agency, I have the luxury of choosing my favorite workspace. However, I was never sure which place that was. Often I’d stick to the daily office routine even if I didn’t feel productive there. Other times I stayed home to finish some tasks but didn’t accomplish much. There had to be a better way.
To get a more objective idea about which work environment best boosts my productivity and creativity, I signed myself up for an experiment. Over the period of a month, I would test my productivity in three different locations. Every week I would work one day at home, one day at the office, and one day at a coffee shop.
To see how each location affected my productivity, I tracked my work hours with a time tracking app called DeskTime. This software differentiates productive and unproductive apps and websites and registers the time spent away from the computer.
Clearly, this experiment is entirely subjective and based on my experience and profession. But even if I thought I knew my working habits inside out, the results admittedly surprised me. Here’s what I found:
Office work led to more socializing
Personal satisfaction: 4/5
Offices can be different, as well as jobs. In my writer’s profession, teamwork sometimes comes second to focused, individual work.
My agency’s office is a rather small common space where our team of five does mostly creative work. However, we also socialize a lot, hold discussions and meetings with clients. Because of these offline activities, my time tracking app often showed that my productivity (time spent at the computer using productive apps) in the office was reduced. But teamwork and meetings are also an essential part of work, so the unproductive hours weren’t always that unproductive. (Note: I could have also logged offline time for a meeting, however, my aim was to track productivity for my primary writing tasks.)
This chart depicts my typical office workday — with peaks of productivity and deep trenches of distraction. (Note: green stands for productive time, red — for unproductive time, and grey — for neutral time.)
You can see that on an average office day I’m far from the ideal productivity schedule — working for 52 minutes and breaking for 17 minutes. On the contrary, my breaks are not evenly spread out throughout the day. Rather I’m trying to focus, suddenly I get distracted and then I’m scrambling to regain peak performance.
Especially ‘unproductive’ office days were those that came after home office and coffee shop work days. There was a lot to discuss and catch up about, and it was fun to meet my colleagues after a short break.
Coffee shop ambiance boosted creativity
Personal satisfaction: 2/5
Working in a coffee shop was so far an unknown territory for me. In fact, I didn’t understand why so many people flock to the cafes for work — isn’t it expensive, uncomfortable, and inefficient?
I was right about two things. First, it’s not cheap to spend the day in a coffee shop. Second, I did feel less comfortable working in a public space where everyone was a stranger and had to pack my stuff merely to go to the bathroom. However, this lead to a surprising increase in productivity — I buried myself in work to avoid thinking about my lack of comfort.
You can see that my productivity graph looks more spikey, the productive zone is more profound, but there are even fewer quality breaks. This is easily explained by the fact that I didn’t take breaks while working in a coffee shop because I had nothing else to do but work. And, of course, drink coffee.
Also, I felt that my productivity increase in cafes was caused by the lack of other serious distractions. Yes, there was background noise — but none of it was my business. Nobody knew me or could distract me from work. Furthermore, I felt a fresh wave of inspiration as I was writing in this unfamiliar place — new ideas kept flowing in, and my work motivation was high.
It turns out, several studies support my coffee shop experience, suggesting that the ambient noise improves creativity. The low-level sound makes it more difficult for the brain to process information, thus stimulating abstract thinking and creative problem-solving. Other studies suggest that mental effort is ‘contagious’, and seeing other people work hard in the coffee shop motivates you to do the same.
On the other hand, I noticed that I usually stopped working earlier when I was in a coffee shop due to the same feeling of discomfort.
In short — even though the coffee shop exerted a kind of “forced productivity” and a bit of uneasiness, I know where I’m heading when the next urgent deadline comes up.
The home office works best for long tasks
Personal satisfaction: 5/5
For me, home is a very satisfying work environment. But I didn’t expect it to be such a productive one, too. Mind that this will never be the case for all professions and even all types of people. And your productivity also depends on other people around the house that could potentially distract you from work. In my case, I was alone and could plan my day as I pleased.
This graph shows that my home office day had more consecutive sessions of focused work. This routine was especially helpful for tasks that required concentration and silence, like writing long, in-depth articles.
The few breaks I took were more efficient and satisfying. I only decided to take breaks when I was tired or felt stuck with a task, not when I was interrupted at work by other colleagues asking me something. Furthermore, I spent the breaks away from the computer, doing a small house chore, like washing the dishes. Again, unlike the office where most breaks consisted of chats with colleagues in the same room at my desk.
The home office was also good for my personal satisfaction. After a day of working in my most comfortable environment and my own natural pace, I felt rested and energized for the rest of the week.
In short, I reached my highest levels of productivity (91%) when I was working from home. However, this was influenced by the specifics of my profession and the fact that I enjoyed working in my most comfy environment. I must also admit that my productivity is always affected by the proximity of a deadline — the greatest performance booster wherever I am.
Personally, I believe that the secret sauce is being able to change your work location sometimes — especially if your profession is a creative one. No wonder successful companies design their offices as hybrid spaces with many alternative workplaces to your desk.
Just as time is an elusive ‘creature,’ your productivity isn’t easy to fit in one box or another. The best strategy would be to track your own time in different environments and times of day and adjust to what suits your mind and body best.
For example, now I know that when an urgent deadline arises, I’ll head to the nearest coffee shop. When I want to hear my colleagues’ advice and be in the loop about everything, the office is the place to be. But when I need to do research or write a longer piece, I better stay at home.
As you scout for your favorite workspace, don’t forget other productivity tips that could boost your performance wherever you are.
Ieva Baranova is a writer at Truesix.co, a content marketing agency that helps European startups access English speaking markets. She is also a passionate travel journalist with a dream to write a book about a yet undiscovered corner of the Earth.