Jhe first thing I did when I sat down to write this article was have a chat with Ben. Ben is a white, polished American thirtysomething with a 5 o’clock shadow sitting against a plain blue wall. The only thing hanging in his office is a white frame with “minus” on it. top in lowercase serif, which makes me think he’s a graphic designer. But the one thing I really know about Ben is that he’s too easily distracted, and so am I.
I was randomly assigned to work with Ben on a website I use every day called Focusmate, which uses a sense of accountability to help you focus. The homepage looks like a Google calendar: you book a 50-minute session and the site matches you with someone else who wants to work in that time slot (this is mostly random, though new users are matched with more experienced users. ). When the time comes, you and your friend are placed on a video call. You politely and briefly tell yourself what you plan to do, then move on.
When the pandemic hit and we all started working from home, I experienced what I like to call kitchen drift. You sit down to write six emails, but halfway through the first you find you’re making a cup of coffee, then your room is a mess, so why not just put some clothes away, but it’s there too your phone is charging, so why not treat yourself to a YouTube video or five? After all, no one is watching. Oh look, it’s lunch time.
This kind of procrastination didn’t mean I was working less, just that the work that would take me a few hours at the office was dragging into my evenings and early mornings, eating up my social time. I know I’m not alone in this: After monitoring changes in web activity of their huge user base during the pandemic, NordVPN released a study that showed the average American workday was extended by three hours once they started working from home.
I had tried other things in the past to reduce the distraction – putting blockers on my Chrome to keep me from going to unprofessional websites, the popular Pomodoro technique where you work for 25 minutes, then do a break of five (my breaks can last for hours).
Discovering Focusmate saved me. First of all it makes you think about what you can realistically do in 50 minutes – the length of a session – forces you to organize your day and prioritize your goal. Sitting down with another human being and sharing those goals creates both responsibility and urgency.
The site was created by Taylor Jacobson. The brilliant idea came to him in 2015: a friend had a big presentation coming up but had a terrible habit of procrastination and worried that he wouldn’t finish his preparations in time. They decided to stay on a Skype call, telling each other what they were doing and leaving the window open to make sure they were doing it. Both felt they were suddenly in a state of productive, focused flow that they had failed to achieve before.
I wanted to ask Jacobson how he went from this idea to starting a business, but when I filed my interview request he suggested that instead of a phone call we send notes to each other voice over whatsapp. “It can be a good way to get high fidelity and go back and forth, without planning.” Who am I to argue with the person who has already tripled my productivity? I’m recording my first message for him.
In his response, Jacobson says that almost as soon as he made the proto-Focusmate Skype call, he thought “millions of people need it.”
He speaks haughtily of what he describes as the project’s philosophical goals. He says he had a “radical paradigm shift of vulnerability” and started thinking “what if we stopped trying so hard to figure it all out on our own and just wondered, what have we really need to succeed?”
He says he drew a lot of inspiration from tribal psychology, co-regulation of the nervous system, concepts recently popularized by Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score, a trauma book that is rarely off of Amazon’s bestseller list. .
“Our lifestyles create constant stress in ways we weren’t designed to handle,” Jacobson says. “Our nervous system is designed to handle imminent physical danger and help us survive. There is a tiger, so I have to run or fight for my life, for example.
He says that in our daily lives, we experience stressors that our nervous system cannot distinguish between these life and death situations. “So, socially and physically, we repress all the fight/flight energy that’s constantly being stimulated in our nervous system. Low attention span is basically just a symptom of stress. When we feel safe, we can focus, and humans are designed to live in safety through connection with others, through the tribe.
When my sessions start, I move my buddy to the corner of the screen and focus on what I need to do – constantly aware that we’ll be exchanging notes on our progress at the end. For anyone who slumped in school but managed to get it out of the bag on the final exam, you’ll know the feeling of working with an invigilator – it all speeds up as you feel the pressure of time. .
Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve booked over 180 of these sessions, although many users I correspond with have completed thousands. If you stick with the session and set a clear goal, I find you can get more done in three 50 minute blocks than you would in an entire day without using it.
What people are trying to accomplish and what they think they can do in time varies widely. Some just try to read academic texts without distractions: “I got to the end of the article!” is a common cheerful refrain at the end of a session. Not everyone uses it for work – in morning sessions people write “morning pages” about stream of consciousness, or even just read the journal. I’ve had a few people use it just to tidy up their room.
Occasionally, at the end of the session, we talk a little more about what we have been working on. A young woman from Philadelphia tells me she would never have completed her undergraduate degree in psychology without hundreds of Focusmate sessions. A teacher from Oregon says it has changed the way she grades papers and given her more demarcation between work and life.
Connecting with someone on a video call provides some of those tribal feelings, it keeps you from feeling like a little atom alone at your kitchen table. “When you mix in some structure, some responsibility, and the human element, we move into an optimal, focused state,” says Jacobson.
This all might sound like deep psychology for an app that essentially puts you on a Zoom call with a stranger, but Jacobson is far from alone in worrying that our lack of focus is now a central societal issue. There are great concerns that technology has stolen our ability to enter any state of flow, and this has been compounded by the disintegration between our personal and professional lives. Recent books like Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (named after the time most of us have on earth), How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell and Stolen Focus by Johann Hari: why you can’t pay attention are part of an ever-growing literature that is not only something we are losing, but that our inability to use time meaningfully is the central problem facing the world today.
Jacobson says there were nearly a million Focusmate sessions last year, and his goal is for the platform to reach 100 million users one day. People often ask me if there are any weirdos on the site (Chatroulette, a somewhat utopian website that was launched in the late 2000s and lets you chat with a random person anywhere in the world, is quickly became little more than a date for onaholes), but I was never matched with someone who didn’t really use the service. Jacobson says the high barriers to entry (you have to create a profile and explain why you want to join) mean that in the site’s history there have only ever been a handful of isolated complaints, all of which have been addressed. by his team.
About 11 Focusmate sessions later, I’m now at the end of working on this piece – finishing up with Hilla, on the West Coast of the United States, making some edits to an online course. At the end, she asks me what my article is about, and I lie to her and tell her that it’s about the midterm exams in the United States. Tell your Focusmate about your Focusmate item? I have to draw the line somewhere.