8 tips to ignite your work life: my pop-up office experiment.

8 tips to ignite your work life: my pop-up office experiment.

Last week I spent Monday morning working out of a cafe. There’s nothing unusual about that, but it wasn’t one of my usual venues. I was sitting in Screaming Beans in Amsterdam’s Hartenstraat (I recommend their double espresso).

One thing I have learned about working for yourself and running your own business is that it gives you the freedom to choose. Freedom to choose not just how you work and what you work on, but also where you work. Apart from face-to-face time with clients, I can do my work pretty much anywhere. So I decided to boost my energies by taking my office to Amsterdam for three days.

My pop-up office experiment turned out to be unsurprisingly productive on both personal and professional levels. Here’s what I learned:

1) Go to the place that fuels you

The idea of working from a single location is dead. Most of us have multiple spaces where we are productive, whether that’s office, home, coffee shop or train carriage. We cherry pick the best space for the task or project in hand.

If you need invigoration, go to the place that really fires you up. For me, that’s Amsterdam. Here I have more chances of my ‘clarity klaxon’ sounding than back in London. It was the ideal place to ‘sharpen my pencil’ before getting back to work, to give my work life a rocket boost after the summer break.

Café de Pels

2) Pick your tools

I travelled with a blank notepad, some books, a to-do list, my favourite pens & pencils, and a 34-year old camera.

In my three days I needed to create a project proposal, work-up some ideas and plan the next couple of months. I chose to work with pen and paper — there are less distractions that way — so the MacBook stayed behind. I also wanted to catch up on some reading, to hang out with a friend, to take photographs. Taking a camera helps me be mindful. I’ve loved taking pictures since I was a child: when I’m looking through a viewfinder, I’m in my element.

I put a lot on Amsterdam’s plate, but the city delivered, because it put me in the perfect mindset and I had the right tools with me.

3) Leave the map behind

In the city I set myself some questions to explore. Questions about where I’m headed and how I can bring more value to the businesses I work with.

Here in Amsterdam, I felt there were no limits to that exploration. I racked up 47kms in those three days, walking around the streets and canals without a map. I’d arrive at a junction and follow my curiosity as to what direction to take. Being so open minded in my walking mirrored my own thinking: free from constraints I was similarly open about where my ideas might take me.

4) Don’t mess with what works

One of the reasons I’d chosen Amsterdam was because I knew it well. Just as Steve Jobs chose the same turtleneck sweater to wear everyday, here in this city I didn’t need to waste valuable mental energy on getting to know my way around. I knew the different neighbourhoods, knew where the essential pitstops — bars, cafes, bookstores— were. It’s also easy: 35 minutes in the sky from my local airport. I could dive in on a Monday morning and just get started.

5) To change your state, change your place

A change in scenery means a change in mindset. My summer had been a mix of work and family commitments. There had been time off, but no ‘me’ time. I needed the fuel to get stuck back into work. A new environment energises us.

On Day 2, over an espresso in the courtyard at Amsterdam’s Dylan Hotel, my good friend Martijn looked across the table at me and said:

“You breathe differently here than in London.”

He was right. I did feel different here (read ‘Looking through the window’ about my love affair with the city).

Thanks to Martijn for the pic!

6) Taking photographs helps me see things differently

I often take photographs with my digital SLR or iPhone. For this trip I decided to bring along my analogue 34-year old Pentax K1000. Its constraints appealed to me: working with 35mm film, manual settings, simple controls, with no way of previewing or reviewing your image.

In Amsterdam I loved taking pictures, taking one roll of film each day. Pausing at a bridge over the canal to photograph a cyclist or pedestrian. Capturing the street scene around me.

Taking photographs, although intended as a punctuation mark between my work, actually helped my productivity. Walking around with a camera meant I could ‘think with my eyes’. It also gave me a licence to be curious — to watch people. It put me in the observer’s shoes and gave me a new angle to look at the world around me.

7) Make time to ask the big simple questions

We’re all busy. We often don’t stop to ask the simple — but big — questions about who we are and where we are headed. Having that luxury of time to walk around the streets with no worry about my destination or what time my next meeting was meant I had time to ponder.

One afternoon I stumbled across ‘Nous’ magazine at a newsstand; the current issue is all about work. An article by Marija Biljan really spoke to me. She says:

“(to figure out) the purpose of life and our life in this moment, we need time and personal permission — to be idle, to put aside physical hard labour for a more subtle, important and I dare to say even harder work, that of getting to know yourself and learning to listen to what it us that you should really do. (That) will put you in the right place in this world.”

8) Be a flâneur — take your ideas for a walk

I do some of my best work walking around a city. I came up with the ideas for my book ‘Zoom!’ whilst walking around Paris with my co-author. If I’ve got a tough problem to solve I will often hit the streets. When I’m working with a new client or leading a Fuel Safari, I do walk n’talks.

The streets have answers: It’s where I come up with ideas and reframe problems. My heart is in the side streets, they give me the fuel for projects and ideas. I love the random left turns that provide surprises, revealing bars and shops off the beaten track. Here in Amsterdam there were plenty of such places to discover.

I’d brought “The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are” by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin with me. The authors had read my book Mash-up, and seen my blog post about my Parisian wanderings. Their book told me:

“When you walk aimlessly you follow a trail that eventually leads to yourself.”

I guess that was my experience. By the time I left the city on Wednesday night, I felt more connected to my goals and aspirations. My to-do list was ticked off, my films exposed, my notebook full and my work reignited.

My fuel tanks were full again. I was ready to get back to London.

For less than the price of a ticket to a conference — an Easyjet flight and an Airbnb — I’d done some of my best work.

Here’s what fuelled me:


  1. The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are” by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin

  2. Known & Strange Things” by Teju Cole

  3. Nous magazine — The Work Issue

Cafés & bars

  1. Screaming Beans, Hartenstraat 12

  2. Café De Pels, Huidenstraat 25

  3. Café Het Molenpad, Prinsengracht 653

  4. The Dylan, Keizersgracht 384

  5. Two for Joy Coffee Roasters, Haarlemmerdijk 182HS

  6. Café de Jaren, Nieuwe Doelenstraat 20

  7. Café T’ Smalle, Egelantiersgracht 12

  8. De Koffie Salon, Spuistraat 281

  9. Grand Café De Balie, Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen 10

  10. Walem, Keizersgracht 449

Bookshops & newsstands

  1. American Book Center, Spui 12

  2. Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum, Spui 14

Getting teams out of their bubble: my workshops at the BBC.

Getting teams out of their bubble: my workshops at the BBC.

A time to recharge, reframe and rethink

A time to recharge, reframe and rethink