As I write this article, I’m sitting in the passenger seat of our family’s minivan. We’re driving back home from more than a week of camping in various sites in Colorado and my wife is taking a turn driving while I write the first draft of this article and edit another one.
In a lot of ways, I’m a “digital nomad.” I can essentially do my work anywhere that I can take my laptop and something that provides an internet connection. I can usually work at home, but I don’t have to; I can work pretty much anywhere I go, and we could easily move to a new location if we need to.
Sometimes, though, working at home isn’t the perfect solution. For a variety of reasons, I have to work out and about.
One of the easiest options for work is a coffee shop. Most coffee shops have wi-fi and, unless they’re incredibly busy, they don’t care in the least if you camp out at a table, plug in your laptop, and get some work done. They obviously want you to buy something if you take advantage of this, but a $5 coffee every few hours usually does the trick.
Coffee shops are cheaper work environments than a shared office space, plus you get a coffee to sip while you’re working. It’s actually a pretty reasonable solution for most digital nomads.
The thing is, I’m often out and about and I extremely rarely work in a coffee shop. I do enjoy drinking coffee while I write, however, but the idea of paying $5 or $10 just to have a table every time I want to or need to work outside of the home feels a bit excessive to me.
So, what exactly do I do?
Preparing to Work
Like most people who might regularly work in a coffee shop, I have a “go bag” that I refer to as my portable office. It’s just a backpack that contains everything I might need to work – my laptop, a variety of charging cables, a notebook, a bunch of pens, a few toiletry items, an empty water bottle, a few snacks, and so on. The goal is to have an item in my bag for the vast majority of needs I might have if I’m working outside the house so that I’m not distracted or interrupted.
One of the big reasons people often work in a coffee shop is, well, the easy availability of coffee. Of course, the problem is that coffee can be expensive. I solve this by preparing a large bottle of coffee before I go out and about to work. I usually prepare cold brew coffee.
At home, the procedure is simple. I prepare 32 ounces of cold brew coffee the day before by putting about a third of a cup of ground coffee into a filter and putting that filter into a quart of cold water. I sit it in the fridge overnight, then remove the filter and grounds and put that coffee into a water bottle with perhaps a splash of milk in it.
If I’m at a hotel, I do more or less the same thing. I take a coffee filter, put a third of a cup of coffee in it, then tie it closed with a rubber band or a piece of string, making a little tea bag. I then put it in a wide-mouth quart water bottle and sit it in the fridge or in an ice bath. Then, in the morning, I just remove the filter and coffee grounds.
I usually try to start a new batch in the morning so that it’s ready for the next morning – a 24 hour brew – but if I have to do it in the evening, it’s usually still just fine. If I’m at a hotel, I usually have two water bottles so I can have one going in the fridge at the hotel while I’m out and about with the other bottle.
This solves my coffee dilemma quite well. Obviously, if you prefer hot coffee or various other methods, there are good ways of doing it. My wife enjoyed hot French press coffee in a national park with no electricity available, so you can have good coffee under almost any conditions with surprisingly little effort. Don’t let a cup of coffee be your excuse to spend $10 just to have a table to work at, especially if you’re doing it regularly.
A quick note on distraction: I find coffee shops fairly distracting and other places (like a library or a church basement) to be much better places to work. Still, distraction can be a major issue in any public place or business where you work.
I tend to solve this by putting on noise cancelling headphones and listening to some form of ambient music or white noise, something without human voices (which consistently distract me).
Where to Work
I have a wide variety of places where I work when I’m out and about. None of these places have any direct cost associated with them.
A park shelter house Many city parks these days have wi-fi available and they virtually always have a strong cell phone signal. A shelter house is usually fairly quiet, keeps the weather at bay, and allows the sounds of nature to provide a perfect complement to your work. I have a shelter house that I often work at near my home simply for a change in environment. The only drawback here is that there is rarely a place to plug in your devices.
A church Many churches will happily allow digital nomads to use their common areas for work if you simply ask. Again, they’re often pretty quiet environments; you’ll usually hear the sounds of a church secretary or a pastor in another room and someone might wander through occasionally. My favorite part? I’ll often hear really pleasant live music when I’m there, as pianists and organists, both church and secular, often practice there, as do occasional vocalists and choirs.
A library This is probably my favorite choice. I’ve worked at libraries in many towns across the country during various travels and I’ve almost always been happy with the experience. Libraries offer free wi-fi, tons and tons of research materials at your disposal, a quiet environment in which to work, and you can often check out study rooms if you need to spread out a lot of materials. Surprisingly often, I’ll find that the library has some program of interest going on and I’ll stop in to listen; it’s because of this feature that I’ve met several US Representatives and Senators and a bunch of different authors and artists, just by pure serendipity.
A university or college campus Using a university campus as a digital nomad offers many of the same strengths as the library, but the exact situation tends to vary a lot more. For starters, many of the areas where it is most convenient to work tend to be loaded with students and often quite noisy, which can be good for some but I like a quieter environment. Many universities offer open wi-fi for guests, though some do not.
A city gym More than once, I’ve found that the lobby area of a city gymnasium is a good place to get work done for a few hours. There are often a few tables and chairs and solid wi-fi available in such settings, and the only distraction is people walking through the room on occasion. Plus, there’s almost always a place to plug in.
If you’re a digital nomad – someone whose work responsibilities enable you to work wherever you want and submit your work electronically – then there are a lot of options available to you in terms of where exactly you might work. Obviously, staying at home is pretty much the cheapest choice, but sometimes people need a change of environment in order to be productive or sometimes people need to work when they’re away from home. Co-work and shared office space locations can be extremely expensive.
In those situations, a coffee shop can be a tempting choice, but that’s also subtly expensive. If you camp out at a table, there’s an expectation of buying a coffee and often buying refills in order to keep your table, and that cost can add up surprisingly fast.
With a bit of forethought, a smart digital nomad can find a lot of free alternatives to the coffee shop with inexpensive coffee on hand to boot.