On an otherwise unremarkable Monday, 12 strangers gathered on a Zoom call. From their homes in Australia, the US and Singapore, the participants sat in their kitchens, studies, spare rooms or gardens. Some sported freshly showered hair as they started their day, while others worked under the night-time glare of fluorescent bulbs.
It wasn’t a social call; instead, members had entered Ultraworking’s ‘Work Gym’ to focus on projects, spark their creativity and get productive. The US-based company is one of several online communities around the world that offer structured work sessions for people who want to block out distractions and remain productive when working remotely.
For a monthly membership, participants can work in the company of others on a project of their choosing. Members are encouraged to be productive by accountability, leaving their cameras on as they work (generally using the Pomodoro method, with work in predefined intervals, or sprints, followed by a break). The aim is that participants not only focus, but also experience ‘deep work’, otherwise known as the ‘flow state’ or ‘the zone’ – a mental state of intense clarity and productivity.
Each work gym has a different technique to help members achieve this peak productivity. Caveday offers 50-minute sprints, interspersed with inspirational talks and muscle-easing stretches. Focusmate finds users a brainstorming buddy in the same time zone to work alongside them for 50 minutes. Ultraworking offers a rolling schedule of Zoom sessions (work cycles) to enable users to join an online group at any time. Momentum Mornings offers a weekly class every Monday morning, Australian Eastern Standard Time. These services range from free to a monthly fee of up to $50 (£38).
Users of online 'work gyms' are paired on camera with another user, which they say keeps them motivated and on task (Credit: Focusmate)
The camera-on accountability for each approach is one of the key elements that sets up members to succeed, says UK business psychologist Felicity Lee. “Being held accountable for an action makes human beings more likely to be successful in a task. Therefore, having a stranger watching makes you focus to a greater extent and, as a result, be more productive,” she says.
Singapore-based polyglot YouTuber Lindie Botes joined Focusmate in March 2020. When the island-state went into its lockdown in April 2020 because of the pandemic, Focusmate proved to be a useful tool. “I live alone, so it’s been fun making new friends around the world while at the same time getting tasks done with an accountability partner,” she says.
An isolation solution
For those who freelance or pursue self-propelled projects, work can be isolating. People who now find themselves working at home following the Covid-19 crisis are also experiencing this challenge.
Executive coach Taylor Jacobson, who co-founded Focusmate in 2016, says the company was created out of his own personal struggles with adapting to home working. Jacobson found when he worked alongside his friend on a Skype call, he was more productive. “We know how valuable it is to have structure, accountability and a bit of camaraderie thrown in,” says Jacobson.
Some participants say they get so deep into the flow state that they’ll keep working past the timed sprints
To have a successful session, the work gyms encourage participants to monotask. “Focusing on just one task at a time creates flow, as well as a sense of achievement when they finish that task,” says Madeleine Dore, founder of Momentum Mornings.
Australian workplace psychologist George Mylonas agrees that monotasking positions you to generate ideas as you are minimising distractions. “Monotasking reduces stress as you won’t be facing multiple tasks, and it reduces mental fatigue as you are not switching from one task to another. This allows you to focus your energy and attention on generating and creating ideas,” he says.
Focusmate co-founder Taylor Jacobson says he started the company to address common work-from-home pitfalls, like isolation and lack of structure (Credit: Focusmate)
This approach works for Cesar Kuriyama, an app developer who joined Caveday when it launched at a co-working space in New York in November 2016. “At Caveday, I enter into a flow that I usually only experience accidentally. Usually if I get stuck on something I’m working on, I’ll use it as an excuse to check social media or scroll through my lunch options, but at Caveday I only have one focus, so I push on.”
Some participants say they get so deep into the flow state that they’ll keep working past the timed sprints. Dr Ros Barber, author and senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, who became a member of Ultraworking in April 2019, says she will “abandon work cycles at some point if I’m doing academic research or writing because I get hyperfocused. I don’t want to stop – and indeed, don’t stop. I just quit the session."
When I joined that Monday morning Ultraworking session, I was intrigued to see how it would affect my focus. I joined several 30-minute work cycles, my fellow participants working on podcasts, PhD dissertation chapters, blogs or even filing taxes. Each session was led by a different moderator but they ran them in the same way.
Each work cycle would begin with the battle cry ‘Cycle on!’ Participants would work on their chosen projects, then were given a two-minute warning before the 30 minutes ended. In between cycles, the moderator would give a talk peppered with tips for enhancing motivation or productivity – such as finding projects you could complete in the half-hour sprint, or knowing that each small step took you closer to your goal. In the chat box, members were asked to share any productivity or idea-generating issues they were having so the moderator could try and help. Every other cycle the moderator would encourage a member to share what they were working on and how it was going.
What surprised me was how quickly I was able to focus. By concentrating on one task, I was able to dive deeper into the research for an interview I was going to do later that week. When moderators announced the end of each 30-minute session, I was amazed how quickly time had passed. While working on my own project, when I read the motivational messages in the chat box at the end of each work cycle, it felt as if I was part of a community all pulling in the same direction.
The camera-on accountability for each approach is one of the key elements that sets up members to succeed
It may not suit every person craving productivity to enter a work gym. It’s also possible, of course, to replicate the experience on your own terms, whether getting into your own timed sprints, or grabbing a friend to work alongside you over a video call. A key component – whether you join a work gym or do it on your own – is preparing to be productive by blocking out time in your diary and deciding what to work on that day.
While the motivational talks are missing from the self-created experience, these could be a hindrance anyway, says Professor William Duggan of Columbia Business School and author of Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement. “Motivational talks are a bad idea,” he says. “You want your mind empty and relaxed during rests between work sprints, not filled with more stuff.” Instead Duggan suggests you do six 30-minute work sprints, where you work in silence or play music quietly in the background, and that in between sprints you go for a short walk, make a cup of coffee or meditate. If you are working with others, he suggests you use the final sprint to discuss any issues. “Talking helps you think things through,” he says.
If you do choose to work in a group, however, Duggan says you have a stronger chance of being successful if you work with people you know. “You feel group pressure to show up. If the participants don’t know each other, there is no group pressure,” he says.
George Mylonas, the workplace psychologist, says that choosing your tasks is the key to success. This is a task only you can do, not a moderator. “Ensure there is some challenge so you don’t get bored, but don’t set too challenging a task as you might become overwhelmed and anxious,” he says. “It is possible to get into the flow state in 30 minutes if the task is not overly complicated.”
Whether you choose to enter a work gym or go it alone, highly-focused productivity is a skill that can be developed. Caveday co-founder Jake Kahana says: “Fighting impulses, staying on task and getting in the flow state are muscles we can build with practice.”