Why is this interesting? - The Productivity Edition

On finding focus, virtual working, and overcoming the stresses of remote work

Colin here. Our collective attention has been hijacked by social platforms wired to keep us engaged and entranced. This is nothing new. But when we add on the additional layer of confinement and its stresses, a tough situation has turned even more stressful for the otherwise lucky many. 

The more-disciplined among us has taken some steps to combat this. The first is turning off all notifications to remove the interruptions from attention-thirsty apps. Second, people are using tools like Freedom, Offtime, and Self Control to block news and social media during the workday, allowing them to focus more readily on the task at hand. (This week’s MMD, Jamin Warren, uses this technique.) Finally, apps like Moment, or Screentime, give us a dash of real talk about how much idle time we fritter away on things not related to the task at hand. 

Of the list of productivity tools that have been mentioned to me over the last few months, one of the oddest is a relatively new entrant called Focusmate. According to the app, “Focusmate changes the way you work by connecting you to other professionals who have committed to being accountable for finishing their most important work. You choose a time to work, and Focusmate pairs you with an accountability partner for a live, virtual coworking session that will keep you on task.” 

Why is this interesting? 

Could ambient co-working actually be a solution? The company claims “research in psychology and behavioral science shows that regular human connection reduces the likelihood that a worker will procrastinate or become distracted.” 

It works like this (after you sign up and get matched):

  1. Be friendly and greet your partner

  2. Ask your partner: “What are you planning to accomplish this session?”

  3. Spend about 30 seconds describing the specific tasks you'll work on during your session

  4. Break your commitment down into specific tasks

  5. Post your plan in the chat area

  6. Start working

As you get through your tasks, you post your accomplishments in the chat. And then after your session, you log-off, never to see this person again. The idea is intriguing: there’s the ambiance of having another person work near you; often the reason people like to work in a cafe or a library. Then, there’s the accountability: you say your goals and you communicate as you get through the tasks at hand. It isn’t particularly heavy, but it’s better than nothing. The person on the other end isn’t your taskmaster, but the light-touch interactions feel like they help with knocking things off of your to-do list. 

Here’s how Isabelle Kohn recently recounted a session of hers for Mel Magazine:

Actually, I notice myself looking at [her partner] 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.

The key to the system here is indeed the soft-touch. The founder of Focusmate, Taylor Jacobson, calls this approach to virtual coworking 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.” 

The Reddit /productivity thread on the approach is worth reading, but it seems that aside from a few technical glitches and no-shows, most people actually behave, and also get their tasks done. 

As we struggle with the next phase of confinement and overcoming the stresses of remote work, this idea of light touch accountability and the kindness of strangers might be a strangely analog hack. (CJN)

Mix of the Day:

I’ve been doing a lot of running over the last few months (a WITI on that at some point) and have recently switched from running with podcasts to music to give me a nice tempo and some room to think. When I asked Colin for a recommendation he turned me onto Michael Mayer’s Immer, which he called one of the best mixes ever done (high praise from the man who has heard more mixes than anyone else I know). Anyway, it’s now become my soundtrack for every run, particularly long ones. The ups-and-downs make for a perfect soundtrack as you jog on a sunny day. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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