Virtual body doubling: ADHD productivity tool has moved to TikTok

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One day in April 2021, Lindsey Bee decided it was time to deal with the “doom piles” of laundry that had formed around her home. So she did what a lot of people cope with a boring task. She turned to TikTok.

But she was not there to procrastinate. For an hour, Bee, a teacher in her 30s, went live sorting through clothes on her ADHD account: brainsandspoons. As the live stream continued, viewers rushed to do their own laundry “with” her.

“Everyone was so supportive,” said Bee, who learned she had ADHD as an adult. “It really felt like a group project, not just me alone in front of the camera. It definitely made the time go by faster.

The ADHD community calls this practice “body doubling.”

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The phenomenon is not entirely new. We often double body without realizing it. You might venture to a cafe to work alongside strangers or seek out the energy provided by others at the gym. “When you think about it, office spaces, oftentimes, just double as the body. You just mirror the people around you,” Bee says.

Over the past two years, however, working in shared spaces has become less common. The coronavirus pandemic has kept people out of cafes, emptied co-workers’ desks, and filled our private workspaces. For people with ADHD — who struggle with executive functioning skills such as starting, finishing, and staying on task — an unstructured single-player environment can be especially challenging. Even people without ADHD can find their attention fractured in an environment where work and life have merged into one big digital blur.

Recently, more and more people have doubled their bodies online. An ADHD community has flourished on TikTok, popularizing the term and a cottage industry of influencers like Bee, which has 114,000 followers. She appears on TikTok to clean up, hosts Discord coworking sessions and even created a short video of herself doing her bedtime routine that her followers can watch for motivation prepare themselves for bed.

In this way, people with ADHD find a sense of “presence” on their computer screens, a sense of social responsibility when alone in a room, and a way to focus using devices best known for their distractions. Virtual body doubling can be as formal as booking your schedule with sessions hosted by a company like Spacetime Monotasking, or as casual as finding a friend to FaceTime with while working on an assignment. You can find options on YouTube and most social media platforms by searching for #bodydoubling.

René Brooks, a 37-year-old blogger based in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, known as Black girl, lost keys, started a virtual support group for black women with ADHD on Monday nights because that’s when she does laundry. The session isn’t specifically for body dubbing, but Brooks has found that having other people “around” — even on video chat — makes tedious tasks more doable. At the end of the three-hour session, “I prepared a meal. I did the laundry. I cleaned my whole house,” she said.

Sloan Burch, a student with ADHD at Clark University, was struggling with a paper when a friend asked her to body double on Zoom. At the appointed time, Burch, 23, shared what she was working on and her partner checked in every 30 minutes during the session. Burch has completed his mission and has doubled his body since.

“Every time I need to focus a little harder, I find myself staring at the screen and seeing the person there,” she said. “My brain can mimic what they’re doing instead of finding something else around me to distract.”

Although there has been no formal research on body splitting, it is similar to practices recommended by mental health professionals. “For me, the term was new, but the concept is not,” said Michael Meinzer, director of the Young Adult and Adolescent ADHD Services Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He compared it to the accountability partnerships he encourages students with ADHD to form. Julie Schweitzer, who directs the Attention, Impulsivity, Regulation/ADHD program at the University of California, Davis, said it reminded her of writing accountability groups. “It’s just about applying it to this population that needs it even more,” she said.

Schweitzer said the unfolding of the body could function as what psychologists call a “tuning event” that consists of “signals that direct attention.” When working with children with ADHD, she often asked where they did their homework. “I used to hear people say, ‘It’s better to do it out in the open, because then I know my mum is watching me. ”

In fact, friendly surveillance is so powerful that some people will pay the price. Spacetime Monotasking subscribers pay $85 per month for unlimited access to “one-hour sprint” and “two-hour stream” sessions on Zoom, or $10 per walk-in session. The business grew out of the TikTok account of Los Angeles-based co-founder Anna Pugh. This irony is not lost on her: “It’s like recruiting for AA in a liquor store,” she says.

Pugh, 34, begins the sessions by asking everyone to state their goals and has found that participants use the time not only for regular work, but also to clean their kitchen or go for a run. “During tax season, seeing everyone struggling to collect their taxes kind of normalized it. It was a really powerful experience,” she said. “We might think, ‘There’s something wrong with me not being able to do this thing on my own.’ But the reality is that sometimes you need another person to be present.

Will Canu, a psychology professor who studies attention deficit disorder at Appalachian State University, doesn’t underestimate the influence of these social forces. “We have a bit more motivation to work when we publicly commit to someone else,” he said. There is an “implicit social reward”.

For Brooks, socialization is part of the problem. “It’s like the communal nature that you see when you look at work that’s traditionally done by women, like churning butter, shelling peas in circles, that sort of thing. It’s absolutely body doubling,” she said. “We’re not just here for the fun of the activity, we’re also here for the social connections we create.”

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One-sided social ties or “parasocial relationships” can also be powerful. Many participants double cross without even knowing the person on the other side.

Allie K. Campbell, a self-described 32-year-old “productivity junkie,” hosts body-splitting sessions on TikTok that draw thousands of viewers. Based in New Jersey and diagnosed with ADHD as a child, Campbell uses the Pomodoro Technique and curated playlists to help her stay on track while working on projects for her distance marketing job. She also jokes with her viewers, who sometimes tell her to get back to work.

She recalled a viewer saying they did more in 30 minutes during her session than in the entire week before. “They were like, ‘What’s this dark magic you’re doing here?’ ”

Rather than sorcery, Campbell’s videos may well be a natural extension of TikTok, which got its start with people mimicking dances. “I have to do my job,” Campbell said. “I might as well do it in front of a live audience.”

About Renee Williams

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