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Having trouble focusing? This service pairs you with a remote work buddy

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01.06.2021

Sometimes we need another person—even a largely silent one—to help us reach our goals.

Focusing on tasks intensely enough to make progress is hard enough during normal times. It’s been even tougher as our homes have become both a castle and a prison over the last year. Some of us thrive best in an environment with accountability or collegiality. In a workplace, we may have the thrum of people or the occasional stare of a boss. At home, not so much.

A service called Focusmate addresses the challenges of working alone by pairing people to perform separate tasks at the same time in companionable silence during a video call, with each worker being aware that they’re in the virtual presence of someone else. In effect, it gives people who work from home some of the value of toiling among others, in on-demand form.

Focusmate is modeled after body doubling, a form of personal task accountability that’s common in circles of people who have trouble focusing and may have a self-diagnosis or professional diagnosis of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). A body double is another person who has a set of tasks to get done, and you agree to pair your unrelated tasks with each other for a short period of time to provide external reinforcement.

Setting up body doubling without an in-person component or trusted friends or colleagues can be tricky. You need to find a partner, set the rules, and make sure you both have time at the right time. And if you know someone too well, you can easily slip into the procrastination mode that led you to seek help in the first place.

Focusmate connects two people via video, but it’s about focused work in someone else’s presence, not chatting, [Image: Focusmate]“If I were to do this with one of my classmates or colleagues, we [would] certainly spend some larger percentage of our time in chat or discussion, and less-than-focused work,” says Lynn D. Warner, an ADHD/executive-function coach who recently finished her training and relied on Focusmate for studying. “Working with a stranger is much more productive for that reason.” (Warner, my spouse, first alerted me to Focusmate after finding it invaluable.)

Focusmate’s matchmaking eliminates all the pain points and friction while still making a human and humane connection. The service answers the questions posed by its founder, Taylor Jacobson: “How can you combine just the ingredients of providing structure, providing accountability, providing human connection and camaraderie and team spirit?”

The service sets ground rules to keep chat to a minimum and stresses safety and trust to minimize the possibility of abusive incidents. Users must register even to use the free tier, which allows you to book three 50-minute sessions each week. Those who pay $5 per month have unlimited access. While Focusmate lightly anonymizes matching—people list their first name and the initial of their last name—members can choose to find preferred partners and also share their schedules.

Focusmate users tend to swear by it and evangelize for it on social media. Najaf Ali wrote on Twitter, “If you’re struggling with task activation, sustained focus, or any other parts of executive function for knowledge work, sign up and thank me later.” Focusmate has no referral or affiliate program; these are unpaid, unsolicited endorsements.

During a session, users are asked to remain........

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