What is ‘body doubling’ and can it really make you more productive?

When you have ADHD, it can feel nearly impossible to nail your focus and get stuff done. Could body doubling help?

Whether it’s down to the siren call of social media, a buildup of stress, a lack of sleep or a form of neurodiversity such as ADHD, many of us struggle to get focused and get stuff done. Even when said stuff is really important to us or we know that it needs to be completed sharpish. It’s tough, and the cycle of struggling to focus – which leads to not ticking off tasks and thus feeling stressed out and overwhelmed – is incredibly frustrating. 

Body doubling is a technique that might be able to help. It’s been used to great benefit by people with ADHD, but it can work for absolutely anyone who finds it tricky to get stuff done. 

What is body doubling?

Don’t worry, body doubling doesn’t involve any cloning, despite what it sounds like. Instead, explains therapist and life coach Mav Atis-Valentine: “It involves having a partner or friend sit with or around you while you work on a task, to provide accountability and reduce distractions.

“You can use it for things like homework, paperwork, online projects and even things like chores.” 

The key to body doubling is enlisting someone you trust to help you stay focused as you work. That means a pal, partner or colleague who you know won’t distract you or pile on judgment, but will just be there as a quiet buddy to help keep you on track. 

“It is a practical, self-help action where the very supportive presence of another person helps the person with ADHD gain more focus, motivation and a better ability to complete a task in their unique way,” Counselling Directory member Dee Johnson tells Stylist. “The ‘body double’ is often described as being an anchor, being steady and in the moment – a non-demanding reminder to stay on course, where absolutely no pressure is given (which would only make things hideously worse for a person with ADHD).”

How to try body doubling

First, enlist your body double. “Someone that is trusted, you feel comfortable with and who understands not only ADHD but what you need from them,” recommends Johnson. “Set the ‘rules’ of when they step in as the body double, such as naming the task or the support that is required to stay focused on it together (ie no distractions such as chit chat).”

It’s worth noting that your body double doesn’t need to just sit there in silence and monitor you – they can use the time to get on with their own need-to-do task as well, so they benefit from the concentrated focus too. 

Atis-Valentine suggests: “Set a timer for a predetermined amount of time – usually between 20-45 minutes – and work on your task while your partner sits quietly nearby. This could also be a great time for your partner to get some of their own tasks done.

“If you get distracted or need a break, let your partner know and take a short break before resuming work. Consistent communication with your partner throughout the session is key to ensuring that you both know what’s going on.”

How to use body doubling when you’re working remotely

Don’t worry if you’re not in an office setup or your home space doesn’t have enough room for two desks. You can body double remotely, too.

“One option is to use video conferencing tools like Zoom, Facebook, Discord or Facetime to work with a partner virtually,” suggests Atis-Valentine. “You can set up your computer or phone so that your partner is visible on the screen and work together on your respective tasks. 

“Another option is to use a productivity app, such as Focusmate, which matches you with a virtual partner for a focused work session. I also have a colleague who runs a company, @queercoworking on Instagram, where they hold affordable coworking sessions as well.

“While virtual body doubling may not provide the same level of in-person accountability, it can definitely be a helpful way to stay on track and motivated.”

Potential pitfalls of body doubling and how to resolve them

When you first try body doubling, things might not go smoothly. Knowing some common pitfalls and how to remedy them can help. 

Clear, ongoing communication with your body doubling buddy is key, says Johnson, who lists some common causes of the technique not working out: “Not sticking to the boundaries, not making it regular enough, not being able to be honest with each other if issues or red flags are arising, eg the body double keeps wandering off or talking about something totally irrelevant.  

“Being able to have transparent conversations with each other is vital,” she adds.

Make sure you enter any body doubling session with a clear plan for what needs doing so you don’t end up dithering between options or getting stuck in decision-making overwhelm. 

“One of the main issues is failing to establish clear goals and expectations for the body doubling process,” notes Atis-Valentine. “Without a clear plan in place, it can be difficult to achieve the desired outcomes with you and your partner.” 

Remember to stay flexible, too, they add: “Another pitfall is not taking into account the individual needs and preferences of the person with ADHD. It’s important to tailor the body-doubling session to each person’s unique circumstances and abilities.”

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Benefits of body doubling

In short, body doubling works because it adds a layer of accountability to whatever you’re doing. You’ve made a commitment to do a certain task, your buddy is there to do their own work and keep you on track, and thus it’s harder to get distracted and go and do something else. 

“Body doubling can be especially helpful for individuals with ADHD because it adds a layer of stimulation to tasks that are boring, but absolutely anyone can use this skill to increase their accountability around their tasks,” says Atis-Valenine. “Having someone nearby can provide some well-needed motivation and accountability. It can also help to reduce procrastination. If you schedule sessions with a friend, you always have time set out to work on your projects.”

“It is what is known as a productivity strategy, an individual’s unique plan to gain efficacyand efficiency in something,” notes Johnson. “Just knowing that there is an external source of motivation can be really helpful, as with ADHD the racing thoughts and chaos, and the innate inability to self-regulate means it is too hard to do it for yourself, let alone stay on track. 

“Just knowing there is someone there can be impactful enough to help to be aware enough to slow down, focus and try and complete what’s required.”

Frame Of Mind is Stylist’s home for all things mental health and the mind. From expert advice on the small changes you can make to improve your wellbeing to first-person essays and features on topics ranging from autism to antidepressants, we’ll be exploring mental health in all its forms. You can check out the series home page to get started.

Main image: Getty; Stylist

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