Getting Focused 05: Productivity Tips from a Starbucks Barrista

Getting Focused 05: Productivity Tips from a Starbucks Barrista

I was sitting outside Starbucks talking to the veteran shift leader, who’d come outside for a quick break. The store had opened short-handed, and things were a bit hectic but under control. Note: the following conversation is paraphrased from my memory.

“We have a good crew today,” she said, “so we’re not having any problems.”

“So what is it that distinguishes a good crew from an average one?” I asked.

She took a drag from her cigarette, thinking it over. “One thing I do is take the 30 seconds to clean up after myself, otherwise things pile up and get in the way. The younger kids don’t do that.”

I thought of all the things I do every day that I don’t really tidy up: entering receipts, putting away my pens and working notes, keeping my desk tidy, etc. I am, however, trying one new thing: putting my shoes away in the same place whenever I take them off. I had been irritated at how long it was taking to find my shoes every morning; the certainty of knowing where my shoes are at any given moment has made my life better. Every tiny bit of certainty helps.

“Another thing is that a lot of the new kids can’t multi-task,” she continued, interrupting my reverie. “I can do 4 or 5 things at the same time.”

“I suck at multi-tasking,” I confessed. “So what is it that you do to keep track of things?”

“Oh, I always know what I’m going to do next,” explained the shift leader. “While I’m doing one thing, I’m thinking ahead to the next thing I’ll do. Newer crew have to stop and think about it, and that slows them down.”

The first thought that came to mind was that it might be easier to think of what’s next when you’re primarily working with your hands. Most of the work I do is actually thinking about how things should work, so thinking about what I need to do next would actually be something of a distraction…at least, on paper.

Maybe the way to fold in that what’s next thought is to express the current task in terms of a tangible benefit, which you know will be used for the next stage. That way, if you’re focused on what you are producing rather than what you are “doing”, you are thinking in a way that’s more process oriented. Assuming that’s good.

Where it might get tough is when you are not just making something from a template, but are actually creating or synthesizing. But then again there are at least two ways to think of creative synthesis:

  1. Collecting from the outside world and seeing what happens when you stick it all together.
  2. Reaching deep inside of you and making something from scratch, shaped by your skills and past experiences.

The first approach can benefit from an acquisition-focused “think ahead” mentality, because the order of collection is part random, part serendipity. The second approach, which requires unbroken concentration and continuity of thought, is probably less adaptable.

“Well, I better go back in.”

“Ok. Thanks for the tips!”


  1. Jakob Heuser 13 years ago

    Focus on what you’re doing next? Sounds very applicable beyond just the creative zone. I’d be curious to know if she was focused on the next action she needed to do, or the next goal to achieve.

  2. Nollind Whachell 13 years ago

    You suck at multi-tasking? Are you sure? I mean you obviously enjoy cooking which means you must have made dinners where you wanted everything to be completed at just the right time. Therefore, you may be doing two, three, or even four things at one time, cycling from one thing to the other as you go along. That to me is multi-tasking.

    Also take that veteran guy out of that particular store and place him in another one with a different layout and I can guarantee you his efficiency will drop like a rock, at least for the first week till he gets up to speed with the layout of things. For multi-tasking to work, you have to be so familiarized with your environment that you can almost go on auto-pilot and do things without really thinking about them. That’s why it’s ludicrous to expect a “new” crew member to multi-task efficiently on their first day, especially if they’re just trying to get a feel for the layout of things first.

    Even more so, multi-tasking effectively within a team almost requires a symbiotic relationship sometimes referred to as situational awareness. In effect, no one gives commands but instead people just relay situational events as they unfold (i.e. the barrista yells that he’s running low on milk and others members act according and without even thinking about it). But again for this to work, everyone on that teams needs to know their environment, roles, and abilities perfectly. I mean all it takes is one new person whose role is intertwined with everyone else’s and that team’s efficiency can go out the window because that one person isn’t up to speed yet. Doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with that new person though.

    His comment about cleaning up after yourself is dead on though.

  3. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Jakob: I think she was focused on literally the next action, from one of several orders that were up. Some orders are easy, coffee plus a few squirts of something. Others require prepping of milk, measuring of ice, etc. Plus, there are all the variations that customers order. I should spend a day watching them actually.

    Nollind: I’m not particularly good at multi-tasking because I tend to lose the focus of the next action. In a very general sense, I’m aware of timing and sequencing of cooking operations that take time, but I don’t get into the zone.

    Interesting observation though on familiarity; in this case, there really are staff who are NOT new (I was perhaps remembering the conversation a little more nicely :-) that are just slow. When I’m in a busy supermarket, I will scan the checkout lines not for the fewest number of people, but for the most energetic checkout person instead.

    The part about equipment layout also reminded of a story about a particular kind of firearms training, in which some RO was bragging to a veteran law enforcement trainer how a particular type of speed drill (draw from holster, 3 rapid shots into a small plate) had resulted in much improved speed and accuracy after quite a bit of practice. The trainer watched the drill being performed, then had the RO do one change: move the target up by a couple feet. The speed and accuracy vanished; what had been trained was not improved handling and aim across the board, but just the specialization in shooting THAT specific target at THAT specific location. Oops.

  4. Matthew Cornell 13 years ago

    I love this topic, David. Ever since adopting GTD, I find myself picking up bits of trash, putting away things, etc. This was a change from letting them sit, or “I’ll do that later.” Kind of a physical two minute rule. I also got this attitude from Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful little book “Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up,” which has a chapter on “It’s always my job, if the job needs doing and I am there to do it.”

    Some links you might find useful:

    Waitress as Organizational Guru

    Collection habit infection, routines, and the value of creating space

    Whose job is it? Mine!

  5. Andrew 13 years ago


    As always I really enjoyed your post.  I find your “navel gazing” into productivity both slightly ironic and insightful!

    I wonder if you can classify types of tasks into “multi-tasking good” and “multi-tasking bad” categories.  It definitely seems like it depends on the essential nature of the task as to whether it helps or hinders.

    Getting into “flow” seems the key in either case.  Getting so that its happening and your mind is so busy and focused on the task (or juggling the series of tasks) that happens effortlessly.  Time disappears.  The magic happens.

    Oh, David, not sure you will read this, but I wanted to get in touch with you do ask if you do “usability/design” evaluations through your consulting.  I really love your design asthetic and was wondering if there was a way I could get input from you.  Although I have read your blog for a long time I realized I can’t find an email address or way to try and reach out to you.  Sort of funny since I believe you are looking for work and you always talk about needing to network more.

    I know the pests are always out there, but how many possible good contacts do you throw out with the bad? 


  6. Ben 13 years ago

    Hello David,

    I am going to focus on leaving your shoes in the same place when you take them off. Keep working on making it an automatic habit. I make sure that I always put my keys in the same place when I have finished with them. The same applies for my wallet, mobile phones, shoes and the back pack I take to work. I also make sure that I leave any jackets, coats or jumpers on my back pack as well. I have toddler wrangling most mornings and the less I have to think about locating my regular tools the less stressed and upset I am when I walk out the front door. I figure that my mental expenditure is better used for problem solving than wondering for the one thousandth time where have I left my keys or wallet.

    As far as multi-tasking goes, I have worked on developing a sense for which tasks I can multi-task and which tasks have to be singularly focused on. This takes skill to know and a willingless to fearlessly asess my task completion performance.

    The last thing I’ll say about mutli tasking is that what appears to be multi tasking may be a series of tasks that can be completed in parallel with each other. The best example of this are household chores. Experience tells me that I should always start with any washing that needs to be done. Once a load of washing is on I might start loading the dishwasher and starting it if it’s full. Next will be sweeping the kitchen floor and mopping it. This way I will have compled three tasks in approximately forty five minutes. And so on and so on.

    My final comment is to not mentally beat yourself up about being effecient and productive. I used to and it was a huge waste of my mental energy and was a confidence sapper as well.

    Keep up the always interesting topics that you discuss.

  7. @Stephen 13 years ago

    Great post David!
    I was in Hospitality for a long time, and the first two things that I was taught as a newbie waiter were:
    1. Never go anywhere empty-handed
    2. Clean as you go
    (number 3. Don’t pool tips!!)

    I have applied these rules to the rest of my life and they make a lot of things easier. One of these days I need to write a book about this topic. Hmmm.

  8. Trish 13 years ago

    You mentioned that this barrista was taking a cigarette break. I think those who smoke (and haven’t been smoking too many years) are at an overall advantage when it comes to brain processes related to multitasking. I do not smoke but I have read that nicotine helps you think better and this may be one of its addictive qualities. So it helps your brain in a way but, of course, nicotine’s negatives, and other substances the smoker takes in, will, given a bit of time, destroy good circulatory health in the whole body.