focus

I Let a Stranger Watch Me Work for a Day — And I’ve Never Been More Productive

Focusmate is the internet’s most invasive productivity hack. I put it to the test.

Like 8 million other Americans, I work from home. There are some nice things about doing so, sure, but before you go gushing over my 14-foot commute from my bed to my desk, let me assure you of one cold, hard fact: getting shit done without anyone but your staggeringly beautiful cat to hold you accountable is hard.

Rampant procrastination, on the other hand, is easy. Without the social pressure to be productive enforced in more traditional workplaces, it’s all too easy to succumb to tempting diversions like needlessly cooking a four-course meal, putting on makeup in an offensively experimental way for nobody and spending hours Googling life’s most important question: “Mike Myers: where is he now?” (The answer: Also putting on a lot of makeup in an offensively experimental way.)

Because of this, I often find myself wishing I had a regular office job. That way, I’d at least be part of some sort of team; a team whose judgment I’d be so pathologically fearful of that I’d rush to get the job done with sparkling focus and productivity in a time frame that would make my boss weep with pride. I’m not even being delusional with that fantasy — studies show people are more productive when they work in teams, and there are several well-respected productivity hacks like “body doubling” that use the social pressure wrought from the looming presence of others to prod you into focus.

So when a friend told me about Focusmate — a free virtual co-working service that pairs you with a complete stranger for 50 minutes of silent, mutual labor over a webcam — let’s just say my interest piqued hard.

Virtual co-working is fast becoming a trend among those who travel frequently, work from home or want to feel like they’re immersed in a 3-D office. However, while a few other services like Arena and My Work Hive offer platforms for video co-working, Focusmate is the only one that digs deep into the science and psychology of accountability to create a virtual environment that’s designed expressly to enhance productivity. Because of this, they’ve grown quickly since their inception in 2017 — roughly 12,000 people use their services at an average of about 21,000 times per month.

As I clicked around the Focusmate website, it became abundantly clear to me that their instructions for co-working are ultra specific (almost comically so). They have the whole thing timed to a T. Here’s how it works:

  1. Sign up for the time slot you want to work in and get paired with another Focusmate who is just as “committed to blasting excuses and getting important work done” as you are.
  2. Make a short list of tasks you can realistically complete in 50 minutes.
  3. Spend the first 60 seconds of your session announcing these tasks to your partner and listening to theirs. Then, minimize the window they’re in and drag it down into the corner of your screen so they’re always there, and always watching.
  4. Start working in silence, basking in the “power of human accountability.” No chit-chat.
  5. When your 50 minutes are up, check in with your partner, talk about what you’ve accomplished and then it’s bye-bye for now.

The whole thing seemed interesting, but I had some reservations. Wouldn’t it be awkward having someone else watch you work? What was with the precision instructions? And most importantly, was it all just a front for a random webcam chat site like Chatroulette?

As I pondered these questions, I noticed a claim Focusmate made on their homepage: “Focusmate virtual co-working harnesses pillars of psychology proven to boost productivity 200-300 percent.” Two hundred to three hundred percent? I gawked, suddenly hopeful this weird co-working website could become my surrogate office. The only question that remained was, “Where do I sign?”

In Which I Become Limitless

My first Focusmate session is with Steve M., a jolly man in his 60s from Colorado who tells me he plans to use his 50 minutes to take an online class in “joyful productivity.” He’s a dedicated Focusmate champion — he’s done about 550 of these sessions since he signed up in August and says it’s totally changed the way he works. “I do a lot of financial planning, and this gets me up and keeps me focused everyday,” he tells me. “The accountability and the connection makes all the difference.”

I’ll be the judge of that, I think to myself, still doubtful his mere presence will be enough to transform me from scatterbrained procrastinator to laser-focused workhorse.

When we’re done exchanging plans and pleasantries, we wish each other luck and minimize our screens so that we can see each other while we’re working. I watch him intently for a second while he settles in just so he knows I mean business, then attack my own to-do list. Every now and again, I glance at him just to make sure he’s not staring at me or masturbating, but eventually, I realize we’re clear. For Steve and Focusmate’s other users, this webcam window is a workplace like any other. He really is there to get shit done.

Actually, I notice myself looking at him far more than he’s looking at me. I’m suddenly concerned with his approval, and I realize I want to make him happy by completing my own tasks. I like Steve — in the few minutes we spent introducing ourselves, he revealed himself to be sweet and optimistic enough that I’d even say I felt — gasp — accountable to him.

The fact that I’d told him I’d be completing a small list of very specific tasks — write and send outline; create content calendar; other whatnots — helps enormously, and I blow through four out of five items on my list with uncharacteristic focus and clarity. At the end of the session, I don’t finish everything I said I would, but my new best friend Steve reassures me that few people do. It’s not about getting to every single item on your to-do list like some sort of human supercomputer, he tells me in an intoxicatingly dad-like tone. It’s more about getting really specific about one or two tasks, then knocking them out in a realistic time frame so you can actually accomplish what you set out to.

Next, I’m paired with Roger S., an ornery, Antifa film editor and artist who shows up 15 minutes late to our session (rude) and makes it overwhelmingly clear right off the bat that he’s there to work, not make friends. “I find it obnoxious when people try to talk to you on here,” he tells me. “I don’t want to explain to them that I’m making avant-garde videos about socialism.”

“Welp!” I say. “Can’t argue that.”

I do the requisite announcement of my plan for the session — write the intro to an article I have due — and we get to work. He shares his screen with me so I can see exactly what he’s working on, something that he says boosts his accountability and helps him not get distracted. I make sure to stare at it extra intently to keep him focused, and when our session is over, I ask him what he got done. “Whole lotta shit,” he responds.

Roger wasn’t the friendliest guy on the block, but he did have a point. You don’t come to Focusmate to make friends. You go to work, and work I did. I was able to bang out my intro at lightning speed, a feat that I attribute both to my fear of being judged by a technologically savvy socialist and the fact that I’d told him exactly what I was going to use the session for. It was strange — somehow, just telling someone I was going to do something made me get it done.

After Roger, I was hooked. I spent the rest of the day “Focusmating” with every man, woman and adult child on the site who’d have me. Every time, I asked myself what the most important thing for me to do right now was, then basked in the support my partner gave me to achieve it. Sometimes, that support came in the form of them staring blankly just past my head — lookin’ at you, Max J. — but other times, like in my session with Janet E., I got a reassuring “You can do this!”

I couldn’t believe how productive it was making me — I felt like I was on some Bradley Cooper Limitless shit. And while I succumbed to a few temporary lapses in focus to check my phone and stare intently at the wall — I’m human, after all — I was far less distracted than I’ve ever been on my own. When the dust settled, I’d banged out an article roughly five hours sooner than I might have otherwise, which meant I finally had time to work out, see a friend and floss my goddamn teeth.

Afterward, I went to splash my face with water in the sink to rinse the success sweat out of my eyes, and I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Who was this newly productive person, and why were her veins pulsating with adrenalized, task-completion glee?

Hardwired to Hard Work

According to Focusmate founder Taylor Jacobson, highly regimented virtual co-working is so effective because it layers various productivity hacks like social pressure, intention-setting, task specificity and accountability into a condensed setting where they’re gently enforced by the presence of other like-minded people. “Humans are social creatures, and the impact they have on behavior isn’t to be underestimated,” he explains. “We act completely differently based on our perceptions of what other people will think of us. When you commit something to somebody else and when you do that thing with them, it reinforces this very hardwired, tribal mentality of working together to survive.”

Picture it now — ancient, roving tribes of proto-people defending themselves against sabertooths and the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without a very explicit “Grog, I’ll hold up the rear while you case the watering hole for predators with your spear” — and some communication about how well that worked out — a lot more of our great-great-great-great grandparents might have died. The more explicit communication and accountability there was about things like safety, food and resources, the more likely it is that they were able to pass on their hairy back DNA to you.

Millennia later, our brains reward us for thinking in those same survival-enhancing ways by releasing certain chemical compounds that tell you it feels good to follow through on the promises that you make. Plus, when you break down a larger task into small, manageable steps, your brain releases dopamine to give you a sense of gratification and enthusiasm. Likewise, when you accomplish that task and your success is acknowledged, serotonin swoops in to make you feel special and important, further reinforcing the productive behavior you just exhibited.

Meanwhile, the conversations you have with your Focusmate at the beginning of your session stimulates oxytocin and creates a unique bond with them based off your mutual desire to work smarter, and the endorphin rush you get from connecting with them in spite of your stressful workload gives you a sense of light-heartedness about how much shit you have to do. Altogether, these chemicals place you in what’s called a “flow state,” or a long period of intense focus and creativity in which you’re getting your best work done.

The 50-minute time window also creates a sense of immediacy, but not necessarily the stressful kind. Scheduling sessions prevents you from waiting until the last minute and relying on a surge of high-pressure adrenaline to finish a project, which a lot of research has shown to produce suboptimal work quality. Instead, multiple, metered time slots fosters a more low- to medium-grade pressure and accountability that seems to result in a better, more creative workflow.

Additionally, when working with others, the type of relationship you have with them factors into whether you’ll end up being more productive. “Focusmate relationships aren’t like other relationships you have in your life because they’re solely based around this culture of productivity and self-improvement,” Jacobson says. “It really feels like this team of people who have your back and want you to win. There’s just an attitude toward life that’s like, ‘Yeah, I want to be better. And if this will work, let’s do it.’”

For that reason, Jacobson says they’ve never had a single complaint of creepy behavior — so far, the worst offense a Focusmate user has committed was having a screen that was too dark for his partner to see him. Not quite the Chatroulette-style peep show my perverted brain had envisioned, eh?

All that said, Focusmate isn’t a panacea for all procrastination. As productivity speaker, coach and writer Melissa Gratias explains, “No amount of accountability will stop a dedicated procrastinator. If a person doesn’t have the skills or resources they need to get work done, no amount of accountability will help. Systems like Focusmate work best when the end result is something we want to achieve and we feel that we possess the actual abilities to achieve that goal.”

In the end, I didn’t want to like Focusmate. I really didn’t. In fact, I was hoping that it’d be some sort of hokey, socially awkward money suck that I could write a scathingly hilarious review of. But ladies and gentlemen, it works.

“I believe that people want to be awesome, and that they want to be the best version of themselves,” says Jacobson. “Human beings are capable of amazing things. But at the same time, it’s fucking hard to be human. Sometimes we struggle with work or getting enough done, and other times life just beats us down. However, if we get enough help in the right ways, magic can really happen.”

In my case, that magic was a few extra hours of free time, and for that, my “eccentric makeup” habit and I are eternally grateful.