If you can escape your desk every so often, you should. It boosts memory, opens up new ideas and provides needed escape. But there's more to it than simply lugging your laptop. Here's how to make any workplace your own.
Image via Thomas R. Koll.
We know the usual protests. "Coffee shops are for pretend work." "There's a reason companies have offices." "Why pay for coffee and Wi-Fi when I have them for free at home?" And it's fine to think that way. But some people like something other than tuna salad sandwiches for lunch every single day (literally or metaphorically, take your pick). Most people find inspiration by coming across new people, passing conversations, sights and sounds other than those they've seen every day of their life. And anyone can make a coffee shop, library, coworking space or any other island of Wi-Fi more usable and productive by planning ahead and making the right adjustments.
I wrote the majority of a book in coffee shops, libraries and other spots away from home. I did it to get away from the distractions of home (people, "free" food in the kitchen, things I should fix/clean, etc). I also did it to create a clean break between my day job, writing for Lifehacker and my extracurricular work. Even if you've only got one line of work, you might find "rotating" between spots, as author Malcolm Gladwell does, inspiring and energising.
So here's some tested advice on allowing yourself to roam more freely but still get work done, not be annoying and adapt to any spot you can hook up.
Cover Your Battery Bases
Extra batteries for laptop (and smart phone): It's generally accepted that the more you charge and discharge (i.e. use) a battery, the shorter its lifespan. For this reason, I've learned to keep two batteries around for both my laptop and Android phone — a "workhorse" and a "backup".
My laptop's original battery was never all that impressive, but it's nearly three years old now. It can barely hold enough charge to make sure the system gets into suspend/sleep or hibernate modes, but that's fine. I've written it off as the "workhorse" — it stays in the laptop whether it's plugged in or not and serves mostly as a last resort for power outages. My other extended-cell battery only sees use when there's no wall power available. At two years old now, the backup still performs well enough to get me through nearly two hours of work, especially if I'm using Wi-Fi sparingly. More on that later.
The spare smart phone battery exists for a similar purpose. The main battery charges up and down with the phone every day. The spare is there in case an overnight charge didn't work or if I'm forced to tether for an internet connection and the main battery is running low.
Apps and Settings You Need on Your Laptop and Phone
- Dropbox: No more lugging around thumb drives — just store up to 2GB of files in a folder (for free — more if you're willing to pay), and that folder's always available on your computers, your smart phone and on the web.
- PDAnet: If PDAnet supports your phone, it's the best way to provide a just-in-case connection from your smart phone to your laptop. Pay roughly $US25 once (though it's sometimes on sale), and you don't have to pay the extra chunk every month for your carrier's official tethering.
- Tools for staying safe: A surprising number of shops have really low-grade Wi-Fi encryption and security. To make sure your laptop doesn't give too much away and let the wrong data in, freshen up staying safe on public Wi-Fi networks, the majority of which doesn't require anything more than a few settings tweaks and URL changes.
- An offline mail client: It's crucial for making the most of your battery and your offline time. Thunderbird works on nearly every system, with most email clients, but Apple's Mail.app, Microsoft Outlook and most other desktop clients offer some kind of function for reading and writing email then syncing it later.
Pack the Right Stuff
- Extra batteries for laptop or smart phone: As previously mentioned, you use these as a last resort when your "workhorse" batteries are dead and plugs aren't available.
- Paper notebook and pen: Because you won't always have your laptop powered on, and sometimes jotting notes on paper or making disposable to-do lists can be really helpful.
- Business/contact cards: Most of us non-sales-types don't use these often, but there's a good chance you might meet somebody who you can work with, work for or otherwise might want to contact later on.
- Microfibre screen and keyboard cleaner: They often give these away as shwag at tech conferences or as freebies in hardware shipments. Hang onto them, if you can. You don't know just how dirty your keyboard is or how nice a clean screen is until you get your laptop out of its usual spot in your house.
- Headphones: If you've got the space and you don't mind the look, you can rock some noise-cancelling headphones, but that kind of defeats the point of getting out in public. For your earbuds, I like the Sumajin Smartwrap, but we've previously provided many pointers on keeping your standard earbuds safe and tangle-free: paracord wrapping, contact lens case conversion and so on.
- Prong converter and surge protector: A tiny three-prong-to-two-prong plug converter is a must, just because you never know what kind of plug you'll find for your laptop. For true plug preparedness, both Adam and myself love this Belkin mini surge with USB charger. It gives you an in for sharing with someone who's snagged the plug you need, and it's great for charging your phone and other USB gadgets in hotel rooms, friends' houses and other spots away from home.
- Stain removal stick or wipes: The tiny kind, sold at most pharmacies and supermarkets. Coffee, cream cheese and mayonnaise — none of them things you want hanging around on your clothes.
Get Energy Efficient and Focused by Batching Your Wi-Fi Jobs
Besides your laptop's display, the biggest drain on your laptop's battery is likely a constant Wi-Fi connection. Even if you're plugged into a wall socket, you're losing the benefit of being sequestered from the distractions of home and the office by being constantly plugged in. Set a loose schedule to check your email, sync your Dropbox files and Google the things you really need to look up — then hit the switch to turn off your Wi-Fi and keep it off. You'll get a good chunk more life from your laptop battery, and you'll probably get a surprising amount done without a constant temptation of web wandering. Image via DaGoaty.
Be a Courteous Customer
A handful of coffee shops might have started skimping on Wi-Fi (but just a handful, mind you). The majority are open to customers with laptops, though, with either predefined limits (two hours, usually) or an unspoken tolerance. Photo by Javier Aroche.
How do you use a coffee house or sandwich shop as a makeshift office without feeling or at least coming off as a leech? Ask Om Malik. He started his blog network from a Starbucks and has some salient advice on balancing your need to crank with the house's need to satisfy all customers. His advice grew from spending entire workdays in a single spot, but other tips apply to those just stopping in:
- Learn the names of most of the baristas and also take time to have a conversation with them. It helps build a human connection.
- Don't spread out your stuff and take up too much space at the store.
- Keep your mobile phones on vibrate and leave the store for conversations.
I'd add a few tips of my own, based on my experiences, conversations with baristas and coffee shop owners:
- Be social, friendly and sharing. If you're rocking noise-cancelling "can" headphones, warily eyeing anyone who comes close to your precious power plug and saying only your coffee orders out loud, you're much more likely to grate on the owner and employees. Most coffee shops want to see people meeting, events getting publicity and people generally happy. If they wanted to reside over some nearly mute, screen-fixated stress junkies, they would've started an accounting firm.
- If the Wi-Fi doesn't work, either tether your smart phone, work offline, or when all else fails, cordially ask an employee if the connection is down. Maybe they didn't know, and the blue Linksys router sitting on a shelf toward the back needs a simple unplug/plug fix. Whatever you do, don't ask repeatedly, explain how simple it is to fix or repeat your query every 15 minutes. I have seen Wi-Fi go down at every spot I've frequented — it just happens. A few folks will always act as if their toilet stopped working. The workers will always talk about these people when they leave, and you'd best imagine they don't get silver-star service upon returning.
For Serious Work, Hit the Library. Yes, the Library
I'm embarrassed to admit how much of a revelation this was for me, but there's a really good chance that your nearest public library has all the conditions you find lacking. It's exceedingly quiet, the Wi-Fi is secure and much more stable than most coffee shops, and you don't need to purchase coffee to use any of it. Even better:when I was down to the wire on my book and needed a place to squirrel away for an entire day's worth of writing, I'd find a plug near the reference stacks and start plugging away.
Monitor and Balance Your Caffeine Intake
Caffeine, especially for those who absorb it frequently, is more than just a simple upper, as we've previously detailed. Somewhere between 10 and 12 days of steady consumption, your body and brain will have built a tolerance up to that daily level, and you'll need to drink just that much to simply feel normal — not elevated or energised, though it feels that way, compared to the alternative. If it feels like too much of your pay goes into short-term espresso futures, start scaling back gradually. Log your daily intake, drop it down over a two-week period, then start using coffee as a temporary, non-daily booster — and switch to tea or non-caffeinated drinks for everything else.
Have you done serious projects entirely on the go? Are you learning the ways of laptop warriors as you go along? We want to hear your feedback and tips in the comments.