Strategies for when you’ve gotta go while working at a cafe

We’ve all been there. You’ve got your cafe work setup adjusted the way you like it, and you’ve been nursing your pour over for the past half hour when suddenly nature calls and won’t go to voicemail.

You must suddenly deal with nature’s call on one hand and the prospect of losing all of your gear on the other hand.

These two go together like peanut butter and jelly – source: Bklyner

What do you do? Well, there are a few strategies to deal with this situation.

  1. Pack up everything and take it with you
  2. Leave your stuff and hope for the best
    • ask someone to watch your stuff
  3. Use a locking mechanism
  4. The bluetooth headphone trick

Let’s evaluate each of those options.

Pack it up

The most secure option, but it costs a lot of time. With my full cafe setup, it takes between 2-3 minutes to break down depending on if I’m plugged into the power outlet or not. This is what I do when I’m in a busy cafe with a lot of people coming in and out.

I can generally regulate my body functions well enough to time going to bathroom to coincide with the time I’m ready to buy a second drink, so my usual routine here is:

  1. Reach a stopping place
  2. Pack up stuff
  3. Go to the bathroom
  4. Grab a drink/refill
  5. Set up again

This generally works well for me, but at times it’s more of an emergency situation and I opt for one of the other strategies.

Hope for the best

This requires a leap of faith in humanity, but in the dozens of times I’ve done this, I’ve never yet been let down.

You can hack the Bystander effect to help in this case by asking a specific person to watch your stuff. Instead of trusting in humanity in general, you’ve asked a specific person to keep an eye on your laptop and bag, which is generally more effective but not a bulletproof strategy.

There are also studies showing that if you ask someone to do you a favor, they will regard you more favorably, so if you see an interesting person nearby in a cafe where you’d like to strike up a conversation, this could be an ‘in’ for you. See Gretchen Rubin’s work in The Happiness Project: “To Make a Friend, Ask Someone For a Favor

Use a locking mechanism

Older laptops often use a Kensington Security Slot that can use a steel security cable with a lock, kind of like a bike lock for your laptop. Modern MacBooks and other laptops that eliminate legacy connectors don’t often have built-in Kensington slots anymore, but there are other types of similar locks or even locks like the PacSafe metal mesh lock that covers your bag with with net-like metal mesh that you can lock to a table leg.

Source: Laptop Mag’sLaptop Lock Guide

These aren’t foolproof, but do a good job of keeping honest people honest. I don’t really bother with them, though. I’d rather take my bag or trust a stranger.

Bluetooth headphone trick

Another interesting option I’ve been using lately is to leave music playing on my laptop on my headphones or AirPods while I go to the bathroom. If someone were to decide to steal my laptop, they’d close the lid, which means that my music would immediately shut off and I’d know it’s time to run out of the bathroom with my pants around my ankles and chase down the perp.

This isn’t perfect of course. You have to make sure your cafe setup isn’t too far from the bathroom to break your Bluetooth connection. You may not want to face to possibility of having to sprint out of the bathroom in the middle of your ablutions.

What I do

Most of the time, I can time my bathroom visits after a two-to-three hour break, where I’m pretty much ready to close up shop and move onto a different cafe or library. If the cafe is almost empty, I’ll usually leave my stuff there. If it’s sparsely populated, I’ll ask a friendly-looking stranger to keep an eye on my stuff and yell if someone runs with it.

In either event, if I’m leaving my stuff behind, I’ll finish my business as fast as humanly possible unless a known person is sitting at the table.

Before you decide to leave your stuff behind, you should run through the mental exercises of what you’d do if your stuff was stolen. Is your laptop personal or work-provided? Is it covered under your insurance–and if so, what is the deductible? What’s the ballpark estimate of the stuff you leave behind.

If you count my MacBook, my iPad Pro, headphones, backpack, and other gear, I’ve got about $3k sitting at the table while I go potty. That’s a pretty good incentive to make sure you’ve taken reasonable precautions.

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