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Overcoming Mental Blocks, Part One: Switch Up Your Space

Written By: Mariya 8 July 2010 Other Posts By: Mariya

Writers frequently suffer from “writer’s block”. Similarly, we founders can get stuck into a rut I like to call “founder’s block”.  We’ve all undergone this painful scenario. Your business or initative is up against some abstract, undefinable obstacle you’re not quite sure how to tackle. Maybe you were turned down for funding. Maybe you just learned that a competitor has just come out of stealth and launched a product that unquestionably kicks yours in the ass. Maybe a recent marketing or business development campaign has fallen squarely on its face. Whatever the case is, the symptoms are standard: you haven’t had an idea for weeks, much less come up with any actionable solutions.

Many of these mental blocks require that you reframe your situation to escape the dead-end thinking. One way to do to this is to switch up your physical surroundings. Some people like to set up designated workspaces, but I find that my nomadic tendencies are such that if I stay anywhere too long, I get stuffy and productivity suffers. Also, I like exploring my city and becoming intimate with the small details that make me feel like a legit New Yorker.

Whether you’re an office rat or you commute from your bed to your desk every day, here are some free (or almost free) alternative working spaces in Manhattan that may just eliminate your “founder’s block”:

Need a convenient workspace right around the corner?

To those of you not in the know, Starbucks rolled out free wireless to stores nationwide on July 1st. Given that there are something like 150 of them in Manhattan alone, you shouldn’t have a problem finding a café that has both internet and outlets aplenty. I’ve personally made a neighborhood Starbucks my unofficial “corner office”. The wireless there is embarrassingly faster than the one I have at home, and the café is constantly crowded with pristinely dressed young professionals taking a break from their daily grind.

There’s even a 24 hour Starbucks at Columbus Circle, although the seating is limited and the vibe gets a bit shady late after midnight.

Borders and Barnes and Noble
These bookstores have cafes with free wireless, although outlets are usually at a premium or nonexistent due to legal issues about people tripping. Be wary that working in a bookstore may be great when you’re doing research and have the research materials right there in the store with you, but can prove to be a distraction if you have targeted goals you need to accomplish. After all, staying focused is difficult when Time Out New York wants to tell you the 25 more fun things you could be doing with your time.

Also, the B&N in Union Square is quite popular and usually difficult to get a seat in, but the Borders at Park and 57th and B&N in Citigroup Center usually have a few tables open at any time.

Need the perfect workspace and willing to trek a bit to find it?

While Bryant Park and Times Square supposedly have free wi-fi, I haven’t had much luck logging onto their services. Other places to try include outdoor seating areas around known hotspots, such as Starbucks or other wireless cafes. I once worked from the bench right outside The Tea Spot on MacDougal. You can also venture into nearby Washington Square Park where you can use NYU’s wireless*. The Starbucks at 60th and 1st has an array of outdoor benches as well.

Hotel Lobbies
A few spots like the W Hotel at 50th and Lexington offer free wifi in the lobby for all. Other hotels, like the Algonquin* near 44th and 6th, have wised up and added security to their wireless to restrict access only to guests. The good news is that they don’t often change their login credentials, meaning that you may still be able to log onto the wireless in a hotel you stayed in last year.

There are several advantages of hotel lobbies. They’re often deserted and are also usually open 24 hours. You can opt to host client meetings right in the lobby or launch late-night strategy sessions with your co-founders.

Public Atriums
A number of corporate buildings in the midtown area have public atriums with tables and chairs, high ceilings, and small cafes. They rarely, however, provide free wireless or outlets. One exception is the one at Citigroup Center, which also houses a Barnes & Nobles. If B&N is filled up, give the atrium a try.

A few others in the Midtown East area are:

  • Sony Plaza on Madison between 55th / 56th
  • Former IBM Building on Madison between 56th / 57th
  • Park Avenue Plaza at Park and 52nd

Some of these public atriums have closing times, although Sony Wonder Lab is open 24 hours. Be wary that the crowd at these public spaces, especially during the winter and in the late night can be a bit sketchy.

Public Libraries
The Schwartzman Library at Bryant Park has a glorious reading room on the top floor that reminds me of my collegiate days. Rows of mahogany tables are surrounded by old bound books, the high ceilings are gilded and painted, and the open skies around Bryant Park allows tons of light top stream in from the high windows. Seats are plentiful. The library does run on the cooler side so bring a light sweater if you’re dressed for summer.

The Science, Industry, and Business library at 34th and Madison also has seating, wireless, and outlets, although getting a seat is a bit more competitive. This library is ideal though if you’re working on technical or science-related work, as reference materials abound.

If proximity to Grand Central is a requirement, the Grand Central Library also offers wireless and outlets on the second floor. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of noise coming from a nearby mechanical closet housing some sort of generator.

Due to limited public budgets, these libraries typically have limited hours. If you’re night-owl, check out the options in the next section. You also can’t eat in public libraries, although there’s a delightful Jamba Juice right across the street from the Schwartzman Library.

Need to work at 3 AM in the morning and you can’t concentrate at home?

Other than hotel lobbies and that singular 24 hour Starbucks, here are two other options:

New York Night Owls
I’ve only just discovered NY Night Owls, a late-night coworking club run by Amber Rae and Allan Grinshtein. The hours are from 10 PM – 4 AM at New Work City. If you’re like me and your creative brainjuice only starts pumping after midnight, try joining your fellow manic entrepreneurs in a mad dash of late-night productivity.

I saw that expression you just made. McDonald’s? Seriously? While not as ubiquitous as Starbucks, there are at least 40 restaurants in Manhattan. Turns out that many McDonald’s are 24 hours and a few have wisened up to local demand and have begun offering wifi. One I’ve checked out is on Broadway near Washington Place. As always, with 24 hour venues, be wary of a sketchier crowd patronizing the venue in the wee hours. Be sure to bring along a work buddy.

Need social motivation to get your work on?

If you’re an entrepreneur masquerading as a person with normal sleeping habits, you may want to check out Jellys, which are spontaneous day-time coworking groups that happen across Manhattan and Brooklyn. These are far more social and likely to have you working near people of similar interests. The downside is that they tend to be unpredictable in terms of scheduling. Perhaps that’s an excuse for you to host one of your own?

Need inspiration but not the internet?

Scenic views of the Manhattan skyline always remind me of what we can achieve, so it’s no surprise that I’m a big fan of rooftop spaces. While they rarely have wireless access, the ambience and views make them perfect spaces to work on creative ideas or catch up on some offline reading. Here are three less frequented hotel rooftop bars, two of which have stunning panoramic views of the city that might unclog your brain juices.

  • Bookmarks at the Library Hotel
  • Upstairs at the Kimberly Hotel
  • Press Lounge at Ink 48

Bookmarks and Upstairs have tables where you can place a book or laptop, while Press Lounge is more, well, lounge-y, but gives you the option of 360 degree views.

Still looking for a perfect space?

There are plenty of wonderful working spaces I haven’t mentioned. For more resources, NextNY maintains a wiki of the startup incubators and workable public spaces in the city. When assessing spaces, be sure to find a space with the following

1)      Natural Light – Scientific research shows that we’re most productive under the influence of natural light, although night owls would probably beg to differ!

2)      Quietness – Despite the convenience, Starbucks often has loud music blaring, which makes it difficult for me to concentrate on analytical or highly detail-oriented work. When I need to do that sort of work, I’m off to the libraries

3)      Productive People – Social motivation boosts productivity, whether you’re at NY Night Owls, a Jelly, or just surrounded by focused strangers all banging away at their laptops

4)      Networking opportunities – Aside from the opportunities presented by coworking groups, different cafés feature different clientele around the city. Most startups are based downtown, in the East/West/Greenwich Villages or south of Houston, so hang there if you want to increase your chance at serendipitous encounters. If you’re interested in high finance, the Starbucks at 48th and Park hosts tons of midtown financiers on their coffee breaks.

Good luck finding the perfect working space!

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  • http://gemkitty.com Arwa

    I was in NY last month and loved working in the lobby of the Ace hotel. Quick wifi, amazing coffee from Stumptown (I'm a coffee snob from portland!) and outlets at every seat. If you like quiet, I would bring headphone though, it got pretty lively around Happy Hour.

  • mayava

    Thanks for the suggestion, Arwa. I've been to the Ace Hotel lobby as well. Big blogger hangout.

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