I Tried A ‘Body Doubling’ App To Help With Focus – It’s Weird But It Works

·9 min read

Today’s facilitator, Arjun, watches over us as we undergo two hours of “deep work.” By “us”, I mean 30 or so strangers, who I can see working quietly from their offices and homes, wherever they are in the world, over Zoom. Before we — whoever we are — get started, Arjun, who has the welcoming air of a Yoga teacher, asks us to ponder one thing: what do we want to accomplish today? I reveal the answer to this question to three people I’ve never met before in break-out rooms, and they all share a similar aim: I just want to get things done. For the next two hours, my every movement can be seen – every shuffle in my chair, every sip of water, and every tap on my keyboard. I feel very perceived and hyper-aware of myself. And yet, without fail in these deep work sessions, I always complete what I need to do.

It’s via the virtual co-working app, FLOWN, that I have entered a world of digital “body doubling”, which, in the simplest of definitions, means completing a task with another person present (it is not the thing stunt doubles have to do for Tom Cruise on movie sets, as I initially thought). The app provides various options to work in “flocks”, as well as meditate and ruminate with people of all ages and professions across the world so you stay on task and accountable. It’s become my biggest concentration hack in the WFH era.

While the origin of the term is difficult to pinpoint, “body doubling” is often used by ADHD professionals to describe a form of accountability when performing tasks you may find difficult or have been putting off, and has been proven to be especially effective for those living with ADHD, a neurological disorder known for affecting a person’s ability to concentrate on singular tasks.

“ADHD people don’t always receive enough stimulation when doing boring and repetitive tasks when they’re on their own, even when they know there are benefits to them,” explains Phil Drinkwater, a life and business coach with ADHD, who has been using body doubling at home. “Examples of life tasks might include doing the dishes, working out at the gym, or hiking. However, working at home can be a struggle too.”

“Body doubling allows us to feel like someone else is there keeping us accountable,” he adds. “At the start of a session, there can be a clear statement of intent for that time to allow us to focus for the limited amount of time that the body doubling session is happening. If an ADHD person is struggling with working from home — which is something that did happen for me — body doubling can help them maintain the motivation they need throughout the day in order to complete the work that they need to.”

““The body double serves as a physical anchor for the distracted individual who feels more focused by the presence of another person in their space.”

Linda ANDERSON, ADHD Specialist

I’ve been working from home for three years now (for obvious reasons in 2022). It’s quiet. A little too quiet at times. It’s during this time working from home that I have been in the process of receiving an ADHD diagnosis as my symptoms ebb and flow between intense hyper fixation and fleeting concentration, disrupting my life. I have never struggled with focus before; my career as a journalist evolved in busy newsrooms and small offices full of creative weirdos. I developed the skill of working amongst a soundtrack of ever-ringing office telephones, random meetings, microaggressions and off-key jokes. “How long is the longest fish?” a former editor would say as he walked into the room, slam his bag and laptop on the desk, guzzle a black coffee and initiate an hour-long conversation about architecture, food…anything. I worked through all of it. Amongst the noise and chaos, I’ve worn multiple hats and written my best work.

I’ve always been this way. As a child, annoyingly so, I would finish my schoolwork far too quickly, spend the rest of the class talking and disrupt other kids in school, so much so, that my teacher designated me to a desk alone, facing the wall. Yet taking me away from people didn’t help my concentration, it only dimmed my light, even if annoyingly bright, to the extent teachers soon realised that this extroverted, happy kid needed people to thrive.

I don’t know if I have ADHD yet — I have been placed on a lengthy NHS waiting list — although it’s likely. I’m one of an increasing number of women who are either seeking or have recently received an ADHD diagnosis in adulthood. As Refinery29 reported earlier this year, “Hundreds of thousands more women are being assessed for ADHD than ever before, especially Black women. According to data from 2014, 19.3% of Black British women had been recently diagnosed with ADHD, compared to 9.4% of white British women.” As one of those Black women, I have been seeking both community and accountability for times when I struggle with the probability of an ADHD diagnosis.

This is something Torrian Timms, educator, ADHD advocate and founder of Instagram community Sistas With ADHD understands completely. Alongside her busy roles in education and administration, she makes time to demystify ADHD for Black women who are often underrepresented in conversations about the disorder. Timms uses productivity methods such as the Pomodoro technique, Eisenhower matrix and body doubling to help manage her workload and, importantly, her home life.

“The hardest years of my life were when I lived by myself,” Timms shares. “because a lot of us with ADHD work well amongst the chaos. If you think about it, throughout our lives, even if it was just your mother waking you up in the morning and getting you to school on time, that was a level of body doubling.”

“Right now, I’m transitioning from a breakup and moving into my own spot and I’m really nervous about that. I’m really nervous not having that accountability partner,” she shares.

I get it. In a post-pandemic world, where I still work from home, I am more often than not away from those communities, colleagues, friends and family members, which would, whether inadvertently or not, keep me accountable and motivated. Using the body-doubling technique via apps fulfils my need for being near other working people, without having to escape to coffee shops to sit in my favourite people-watching spots. And, simply being around people head down and deep in concentration, makes me want to do the same — why does this work so well?

“I would tell my partner that if I am falling short on something do not hesitate to correct me… Hold me accountable. It helps.”

Torrian Timms, adhd advocate

“The body double serves as a physical anchor for the distracted individual who feels more focused by the presence of another person in their space,” writes ADHD specialist Linda Anderson on the website add.org. “The distracted person feels responsible for the body double. This perception translates as­ ‘I can’t waste this gift of time’.”

It’s this sense of shared focus that FLOWN’s founder, Alicia Navarro, achieves with her virtual co-working space. As the CEO and tech-entrepreneur shared with Refinery29, she hadn’t expected the app to become a lifeline for those with ADHD and struggling with focus-related issues.

“I came into this using the science of deep work and flow states,” she explains, referencing the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, “but what I discovered is that the end product [of FLOWN] is also one that helps with people with ADHD and other neurodivergence where people are encouraged to use body doubling as a technique. I did not know about this before. But obviously, now, I’m like, wow, this has become more than what I even imagined it would.”

Before FLOWN, Navarro founded affiliate marketing company Skimlinks. After stepping away from her corporate life to work remotely, she wanted to create an environment that helps people get into a “state of flow” because, as she explains, “not only do you produce your most prolific work, but you come away from those experiences with a great sense of pride, a real sense of purpose.”

“My love of body doubling isn’t an advert in favour of working back in busy offices. I’ve just accepted that I may need people more than others do.”

With FLOWN, I find those flow states easier to achieve and with each session, I feel the sense of accomplishment that Navarro speaks of. She compares her product to that of Soul Cycle and Peloton, where fit and plucky fitness trainers urge you to match their speed, strength, and duration, and many find, more often than not, they do just that.

“[FLOWN] is particularly useful for people that are working remotely, at least some of the time because it brings the benefits of the office — the workplace rituals, that sense of accountability — but you still have the benefits of working remotely so you can still step away and sit in the sun and avoid a really annoying commute. It’s like Peloton for work where we offer these live and on-demand content experiences that help you focus when you work and recharge your focus when you need.”

Similarly, this October, Timms will be launching a channel for Black women with ADHD to focus on their tasks with some chill-hop. She explains to Refinery29, that accountability is everything to someone with ADHD — even if it means acknowledging shortcomings.

“Accountability is important because it allows us to get the same dopamine rush of checking things off of a list. Accountability allows us to do the thing, whatever the thing is, that we struggle with the most,” Timms explains.

“I would tell my partner that if I am falling short on something do not hesitate to correct me. Don’t talk to me like a child, but please still say, hey, you forgot to turn the lights off in that room. Show me the electricity bill. Hold me accountable. It helps.”

To clarify, my love of body doubling isn’t an advert in favour of working back in busy offices. I’ve just accepted that I may need people more than others do. It’s hard to admit. Truthfully, I like being good at everything and enjoy solo sports like running where I only have to rely on myself. Accepting that I may need help in periods of feeling overwhelmed isn’t something I’ve wanted to embrace.  But, that’s the thing about body-doubling, it doesn’t require someone to be an active participant in your tasks or to-do list, but having someone there — a strong, unflappable anchor amongst the chaos — reminds you that you have got this and they’ll be right here to watch you do it.

This article was originally published on Unbothered UK

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