The first thing I did when I sat down to write this piece was to have a conversation with Ben. Ben is a polite clean-cut white American thirtysomething with a 5 o’clock shadow sitting against a plain blue wall. The only thing hanging in his study is a white frame with “less.” on it in lower-case serif, which makes me think he’s a graphic designer. But the only thing I really know about Ben is he’s too easily distracted, and so am I.
I have been 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 kind of looks like a Google calendar: you book in a 50-minute session and the site matches you with someone else who wants to work in that time slot (this is mostly done randomly although brand new users are matched with more experienced ones). When the time comes, you and your buddy get placed on a video call. You politely and briefly tell each other what you’re planning to use the time to do and then you get on with it.
When the pandemic hit and we all started to work from home, I experienced what I like to call the kitchen drift. You sit down to write six emails, but halfway through the first you find that you’re making a cup of coffee, and then actually your bedroom is messy so why not just put a few clothes away, but that’s also where your phone is charging, and so why not treat yourself to a YouTube video or five – after all, no one is watching. Oh look, it’s lunchtime.
This kind of procrastinating didn’t mean I ended up working less, just that work that would take me a few hours in 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’s working day was lengthened by three hours once they started working from home.
I had tried other things in the past to cut down on distraction – putting blockers on my Chrome to stop me going on non-work websites, the popular Pomodoro Technique in which you work for 25 minutes and then take a break for five (my breaks could last for hours).
Discovering Focusmate saved me. First of all it makes you think about what you can reasonably do in 50 minutes – the length of a session – forces you to organise your day and prioritise your goal. Sitting down with another human being and sharing those goals creates both accountability and urgency.
The site was created by Taylor Jacobson. The brainwave came to him in 2015: a friend had a big presentation coming up but had a terrible procrastination habit and was worried he wouldn’t get his preparations completed in time. They decided they would 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 of them felt they were suddenly in a productive, concentrated flow state they hadn’t previously managed to reach.
I wanted to ask Jacobson about how he got from that idea to setting up a business but when I put in my interview request he suggested that rather than a phone call we send each other voice notes on WhatsApp. “It can be a nice way to get high fidelity and do some back and forth, sans scheduling.” Who am I to argue with the person that’s already improved my productivity threefold? I record my first message for him.
In his reply, Jacobson says almost as soon as he had done the proto-Focusmate Skype call, he thought “millions of people need this”.
He speaks loftily about what he describes as the philosophical aims with the project. He says he had “a dramatic paradigm shift of vulnerability” and started to think “what if we stopped trying so hard to figure out everything on our own and just asked ourselves, what do we actually need in order to be successful?”
He says he took a lot of inspiration from tribal psychology, nervous system co-regulation, concepts that have been popularised recently by Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score, a book about trauma that is rarely out of the Amazon bestseller list.
“Our lifestyles create constant stress in a way we weren’t designed to handle,” Jacobson says. “Our nervous system are designed to handle imminent physical danger and help us survive. There’s a tiger, so I need to run or fight for my life, for example.”
He says that in our daily lives we experience stressors that our nervous systems can’t distinguish between those life and death situations. “So socially and physically, we repress all of the fight/flight energy that is constantly being stimulated in our nervous system. A low attention span is basically just a symptom of stress. When we feel safe we can focus, and humans are designed to experience safety through connection with others, through the tribe.”
When my sessions begins I move my buddy to the corner of the screen and focus on what I need to be doing – constantly aware that we will be swapping notes about our progress at the end. For anyone who slouched their way through school but managed to pull it out of the bag during the final exam, you’ll know the feeling of working with a proctor – everything speeds up as you feel the time pressure.
Since the start of the pandemic I have booked more than 180 of these sessions, although many users I match with have completed thousands. If you respect the session and set a clear goal, I find you can get more done in three 50-minute blocks as you could in a whole day not using it.
What people are trying to achieve, and how much they think they can get done in the time, varies greatly. Some are just trying to read academic texts without distractions: “I made it to the end of the article!” is a common joyous refrain at the end of a session. Not everyone uses it for work – in early morning sessions you get people writing stream-of-consciousness “morning pages”, or even just reading the paper. I’ve had a couple of people use it just for tidying their room.
Occasionally, at the end of the session, we talk a bit more about what we worked on. One young woman in Philadelphia tells me she would never have completed her undergraduate degree in psychology without hundreds of Focusmate sessions. A teacher in Oregon says it has changed the way she marks papers and has given her more demarcation between work and life.
By connecting with someone on a video call, you’re providing some of those tribe-like feelings, it stops you feeling like just a little atom alone at your kitchen table. “When you mix together some structure, some accountability, and the human element, we move into an optimal, focused state,” says Jacobson.
This might all seem like some deep psychology for an app that basically puts you on a Zoom call with a stranger, but Jacobson is far from the only one who is concerned that our lack of focus is now a central societal problem. There are big concerns that technology has stolen our ability to enter any kind of flow state, and this has been worsened by the disintegration between our personal and work lives. Recent books like Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks (named after the amount of time most of us have on earth), Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing and Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention are part of an ever-growing literature that focus isn’t just something we’re losing but that our inability to use time meaningfully is the central problem facing the world today.
Jacobson says that there were almost a million Focusmate sessions last year, and his aim is for the platform to one day reach 100 million users. People often ask me whether there are any weirdos on the site (Chatroulette, a somewhat utopian website that launched in the late 00s and let you speak with a random person anywhere in the world, quickly descended into little more than a meet-up for masturbators), but I have never been matched with anyone who wasn’t using the service genuinely. Jacobson says the high barriers to entry (you have to create a profile and talk about why you want to join) mean in the site’s history there has only ever been a tiny handful of isolated complaints, all dealt with by his team.
About 11 Focusmate sessions later I’m now at the end of working on this piece – I finish with Hilla, on the west coast of the US, who is making some changes to an online course. At the end, she asks me what my article is about, and I lie and tell her it’s about the US midterms. Talking to your Focusmate about your Focusmate article? I have to draw the line somewhere.