The idea of Focusmate is odd, a little uncomfortable. A stranger appears on your screen, and you have a quick conversation — the expected “how do you do,” but followed by plans. What are you working on for the hour? What’s your goal? You show me yours; I’ll show you mine. My plan, that is.
It’s natural to have reservations toward Focusmate before you use it. I was suspicious when I first heard about this online productivity community. Do I want someone watching me while I work? What kind of people use this thing?
But Focusmate is brilliant. And as someone who is continually trying out new productivity apps and systems — ironically, often to the point of distraction — I can tell you that Focusmate is the most effective one I’ve used. When it comes to a list of things we’d like productivity tools to accomplish, most apps check off two or three boxes at most. Focusmate has so many layers intuitively built in — I imagine even the creator was surprised how many boxes ended up simultaneously checked.
Here’s the deal: after signing up with Focusmate you are presented with a calendar of the week. Each day gets split into hours and each hour into 15-minute increments. You will see the names of users (usually first name, last initial) claiming some of these increments. Now, you think about the time — or times — you want to get to work. If there’s a name at that time, then click on the name — that’s your work partner for the session. If there isn’t a name listed, go ahead and claim the time. Someone will match up with you. Either way, once you schedule a time, it gets added to your Google calendar.
When the time comes, log o
Each session is 50 minutes long. Sometimes your partner will keep her microphone on — if she’s in a quiet spot or isn’t listening to music — and you can hear fingers tapping the keyboard and other ambient noises. You can do the same. I found this helpful — the sound of my partner working spurs me on. And, often your partner will keep a running log of what she is working on in the text chat box. “Now I’m working on clearing my email inbox” and minutes later followed by “Completed” and a short description of the next task.
I usually don’t list what I’m working on because I’m often deep in the flow state. Your experience might be different, but Focusmate gets me in a mental flow like nothing else. I find myself working straight through the 50 minutes without stopping, without distraction, and then amazed at how much I accomplished once the
When you finish a session, you check in with your work partner. How did you do? Briefly, let your partner know if you got through your agenda, or if you hit roadblocks or distractions. Regardless, getting anything done is a win, and your partner will probably congratulate you. You’ll do the same in return.
This tool is powerful — I can’t emphasize that enough. Remember how I said Focusmate checks off many productivity boxes? Here are the ones I’ve found so far:
• Scheduling your day. Scheduling these sessions puts you in the habit of thinking ahead about your work. Though you can schedule a Focusmate session right up to the last minute, the tool is most potent when you plan out your sessions well in advance, whether it’s first thing in the morning or a day or two before. This practice adds intention and purpose to your day.
• You have to show up. I’ve tried scheduling my day on a calendar on my own, to plan my day in advance. It never worked. Though I’d have a specific task planned for, say, 10 AM, I’d usually find myself continuing to work on whatever I started at 9:45, blowing apart my agenda. Or, even worse, I wouldn’t show up at 10 — I’d keep reading through my email newsletters or continuing a long breakfast. With Focusmate, you’ve got to show up at the designated time and be ready to do your task. Someone is counting on you to be there. And, if you don’t show up, your rating suffers — your profile displays your ‘attendance score.’
• There’s accountability. Naming your task(s) for the session and then reporting progress at the finish works. Psychologically, this adds determination — especially as your goal is stated out loud and to someone — and positive reinforcement when your partner congratulates you at the end.
• Parkinson’s Law comes into play. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will often fill the time allotted to it. For example, if you think a task will take three hours to complete but your hard deadline is in one hour, sometimes — miraculously — you’ll finish that task within that hour.1However, most often the law is applied in reverse. I’ve found Focusmate to work the same. With a clock counting down and knowing that I’m checking in with my partner at the end, I find myself finishing projects that I didn’t think I’d get done in a single session.
• You get to interact with people. I work at home and can go all day (and sometimes days) without encountering another human besides my significant other. This situation isn’t healthy — at least it isn’t for me — and leads to monotony and isolation. With Focusmate, I’m meeting and speaking with multiple people daily. My days alone in the home office don’t drag on as they used to, and I look forward to each work session to find out who I’ll meet. And Focusmate’s users are interesting people from around the world — last hour I was in a session with someone working out of a library in Kolkata, and, as I write this, I’m working alongside an author in Chicago. Yesterday I worked with an ex-pat starting a business out of her new apartment in Morocco. These encounters are fascinating. And there are strict rules users must abide — no pitching, selling, or flirting, for example — and you’re encouraged to report any violations. But I have yet to meet anyone who was a hassle and wasn’t laser-focused on their task at hand.
I was super-excited about Focusmate from the first day I used it. But I’ll often be excited about a new tool and then lose my enthusiasm and stop using it a couple of weeks later. So I decided to try Focusmate for six weeks before posting about it, to make sure it stuck. I’m pleased to report that I have five sessions booked for today and am already planning out sessions for the rest of the week. I’m still an enthusiastic user, and Focusmate has become an integral part of my work day. I don’t like throwing around the phrase ‘game-changer,’ but I think I finally found a tool that qualifies.
Here’s where you expect me to recommend that you try Focusmate — which I do — and give a referral code or affiliate link. But here’s the buried lede: it’s free. There’s no fee to use Focusmate. The creator has hinted that he may look into a way to monetize it soon, perhaps by limiting how many sessions one can schedule in a week on the free plan (my guess). I actually hope he does monetize Focusmate in some way as I want to see it persist and develop. This tool has dramatically improved my workflow and given value to my work days, and I’d happily pay for that.
I write a lot about how internet companies are up to no good, commoditizing our time and attention. It’s reassuring to find an online platform that is selflessly adding true value to my day. Perhaps I’ll meet you for a work session?
P.S. Here’s the article that convinced me to give Focusmate a try:
🔗→ I Let a Stranger Watch Me Work for a Day — And I’ve Never Been More Productive
Update: This article points to another benefit of Focusmate that I didn’t mention above — that it helps reduce the effects of depression. I can happily verify this.