Coffee & Vinyl

Ben Howdle
5 min readMar 17, 2017

Originally posted on SuperYesMore:

When I wrote this post, all I could think about was one of my favourite Otis Redding songs; “Cigarettes & Coffee”

Productivity is a loose term at best, and I feel like it falls prey to the same fate as terms like “hustle”. Hustle used to mean “a state of great activity”, but it’s been picked up by a certain subset of people, hyped up and transformed into a faux-desirable lifestyle of burn-out.

To me, being “productive” holds little meaning as a label, especially one that I’m aware of inducing myself into. When I’ve been most productive, I’ve not even noticed I’m “being #productive”.

Working remotely, and working as a contractor on various projects, means I have the luxury not afforded to a large percentage of society; I not only get a large say in what I work on, but how I choose to work on that, and pinch me, also when.

To me, being productive, as a term, is interchangeable with being engaged. If I’m engaged in a task, whether it be reading, coding, creating Spotify playlists (if I could find a way to be paid to do this — I’d jump at the chance), I can very easily forget to eat, put music on, go to the toilet (we’re talking an hour or two at the most — I’m not starving or soiling myself here). I don’t need to try. I slip into this state without any effort or coaxing. No app is sending me a notification to #BE #PRODUCTIVE. There must be something that just clicks on a deep primal level that allows you to zone out and focus in on a task effortlessly.

This doesn’t just happen in my own work on, this can be in client work as well. I don’t pretend like my own work doesn’t bring me more satisfaction, but regardless of task (reading, work, etc..) this state can seemingly manifest itself. What I don’t try and do is force this state. I don’t believe its one that can be manufactured, or engineered. The worst feeling is a staring at a todo list like its a continental breakfast at a hotel — picking and grazing at potential tasks, but never really getting your teeth into anything.

When those situations arise (we’re back to the luxury here), I step away from that specific task. If I’m coding, I might read or make a coffee, or play a video game (Uncharted 4 was stellar). If I’m reading and not retaining anything I’m looking at, I might jump on the computer and dive into a project. My tiny JavaScript library Grade was born out of struggling on an issue for my much larger app — Ekko, which I was getting nowhere on. I needed something a little more fun, low-fidelity and was gratified very quickly because it was done in less than 2 hours.

If I’m unable to consume or produce, I’ll likely just lie down, until I become restless. I’ll often follow that by doing something mundane and physical — taking the bins out, driving something (last time it was the christmas tree) to the skip, this gives me time to figure stuff out subconsciously, but keep my hands and body occupied. When writer Nick Hornby gets creatively burnt out, he goes old school and turns his attention to the puzzle he’ll be currently trying to complete, “It’s just enough to occupy your mind, but it leaves great chunks of your mind free,” Hornby said. “And I do it until suddenly I can see that there might be another sentence in me.”

One man’s puzzle is another man’s trip to the skip.

In my Top 5 movies of all time; one of Hornby’s finest creations

Like I said before, I genuinely don’t believe those fleeting focus moments can be engineered, and they are fleeting. I catch them maybe 2–3 times a week, and I can compress a “day’s worth” of work into an hour or so. If they can’t be forced, and they’re very fleeting, how do I maintain my work output and still have people pay my invoices? Well, I go for the next best thing. If I just need to get something done, whether it be low-hanging fruit tasks, or complex architectural (software, not buildings) problems, I do my best to drown out the lethargy circling my psyche. This likely takes the form of very loud music directly pounding my eardrums. It never usually matters what it is, repetitive beats usually help. Even better, stick a song on repeat and let yourself dissolve into it, it’ll help your mind stop wandering off…

For me personally, making a coffee and listening to a record is the perfect mashup. I’ve got an espresso machine at home, with a steam wand, and there’s various small steps involved in making the coffee. Each step along the process brings you closer to the finished product, potentially something you haven’t been able to achieve on your computer or coding task? This completed process, along with putting on a record and really listening to the music is delightful. You’re not just double clicking a track in Spotify, but you’re taking the record out of it’s sleeve, lifting the lid, taking the cover from the needle, placing the record down, positioning the arm at the outer ring of the record, slowly lowering the needle onto the record (I hope that wasn’t patronising — I’m just setting the scene). Another process where you’ve gone from having nothing to producing something in a relatively short space of time. Also, you’ve got to be somewhat engaged in the music you’re listening to — remember, you’ll need to flip the record at some point?

Finding things to be immersed in is key for me. Sometimes mindlessness can be a saviour (like Hornby’s puzzle), but sometimes I can’t consume any more Netflix or read any more pages of Infinite Jest, I need to complete a process of my own (making a piccolo and listening to Kind of Blue is the killer combo for me). I need to see something through, I need to let my mind find the answers without any manual intervention, I need to put all the right things in all the right places to let my mind naturally slip into that nirvana state of focus.

Failing that, I’ll just take the bins out…



Ben Howdle

Consultant software engineer and advisor to companies like GoDaddy, Cisco, Soho House and many more 👉 /