One day in April 2021, Lindsey Bee decided it was time to deal with the laundry “doom piles” that had formed around her house. So she did what many people do when faced with a boring task: She turned to TikTok.
“Everybody was so encouraging,” said Bee, who learned she has ADHD as an adult. “It made it really feel like a group project, not just me by myself on camera. It definitely made the time go by faster.”
The ADHD community calls the practice “body doubling.”
The phenomenon isn’t entirely new. We often body double without realizing it. You might venture to a coffee shop to work alongside strangers or seek out the energy provided by others at the gym. “When you think about it, office spaces, a lot of times, are just body doubling. You’re just mirroring the people around you,” Bee says.
In the past couple of years, though, working in shared spaces has become less common. The coronavirus pandemic has kept people out of coffee shops, emptied offices of colleagues and filled our private spaces with work. For those with ADHD — who struggle with executive functioning skills such as starting, completing and staying on task — a structureless, solo setting can be particularly challenging. Even people who don’t have ADHD might find their attention fractured in an environment where work and life have merged into one big, digital blur.
Recently, more people have been body doubling online. An ADHD community has flourished on TikTok, popularizing the term and a cottage industry of influencers such as Bee, who has 114,000 followers. She pops onto TikTok to clean, hosts Discord co-working sessions and even created a short video of herself doing her bedtime routine that her followers can watch for motivation to get ready for bed themselves.
In this way, people with ADHD are finding a feeling of “presence” in their computer screens, a sense of social accountability while alone in a room and a way to focus with the help of devices known for their distractions. Virtual body doubling can be as formal as booking your calendar with sessions hosted by a company such as 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 doing a search for #bodydoubling.
René Brooks, a 37-year-old blogger based in Gettysburg, Pa., 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 doubling, but Brooks has found that having other people “around” — even on video — makes tedious tasks feel more doable. By the end of the three-hour session, “I’ve meal prepped. I’ve done laundry. I’ve cleaned my whole house,” she said.
I just had THE BEST TIME hanging out with my Patreon Discord peeps while everyone did a clean up. Body doubling and just chatting about life. It made me so happy.— René Brooks | Black Girl, Lost Keys | ADHD (@blkgirllostkeys) January 15, 2022
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 agreed-upon time, Burch, 23, shared what she was working on, and her partner checked in at 30-minute intervals during the session. Burch completed her assignment and has been body doubling ever since.
“Whenever I’m needing to focus a little bit harder, I’ll find myself looking over at the screen and seeing the person there,” she said. “My brain can mimic what they’re doing as opposed to finding something else around me to be distracted by.”
Although there hasn’t been formal research into body doubling, it is similar to practices that mental health professionals recommend. “The term to me was novel, 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 likened it to the accountability partnerships that he encourages students with ADHD to form. Julie Schweitzer, who leads the Attention, Impulsivity, Regulation/ADHD Program at the University of California at Davis, said it reminds her of writing accountability groups. “It’s just applying it to this population who needs it even more,” she said.
Schweitzer said body doubling could work as what psychologists call a “setting event” that consists of “cues that orient attention.” When she worked 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 mom’s watching me.’ ”
In fact, friendly surveillance is so powerful, some people will pay for it. Spacetime Monotasking’s subscribers pay $85 per month for unlimited access to one-hour sprint and two-hour flow sessions on Zoom, or $10 per drop-in session. The business grew from Los Angeles-based co-founder Anna Pugh’s TikTok account. That irony is not lost on her: “It’s like recruiting for AA in the liquor store,” she said.
Pugh, 34, begins the sessions by asking everyone to state their goals and has found participants using the time not only for ordinary work but also to clean their kitchens or go for a run. “During tax season, seeing everybody struggling with pulling their taxes together just kind of normalized it. That was a really powerful experience,” she said. “We might think, ‘There’s something wrong with me for not being able to do this thing on my own.’ But the reality is, sometimes you need another person’s presence.”
Will Canu, a psychology professor who researches attention-deficit disorders at Appalachian State University, doesn’t underestimate the sway of these social forces. “We have a little extra motivation to work when we publicly make a commitment to someone else,” he said. There is an “implicit social reward.”
For Brooks, socializing is part of the point. “It’s like the communal nature that you see when you’re looking at work that’s traditionally done by women, like churning butter, shelling peas in circles, that kind of thing. That is absolutely body doubling,” she said. “We’re not just there for the sake of the activity. We’re also there for the social connections that we make.”
One-sided social connections, or “parasocial relationships,” can be powerful, too. Many participants body double without even knowing the person on the other side.
Allie K. Campbell, a 32-year-old self-described “productivity junkie,” hosts body-doubling sessions on TikTok that draw thousands of viewers. Based in New Jersey and diagnosed with ADHD as a kid, Campbell uses the Pomodoro Technique and curated playlists to help her stay on track while working on projects for her remote marketing job. She also banters with her viewers, who occasionally tell her to get back to work.
She recalled one viewer saying they got more done in 30 minutes in her session than in the entire week before. “They were like, ‘What is this black magic that you’re doing here?’ ”
Rather than witchcraft, Campbell’s videos might just be a natural extension of TikTok, which got its start with people imitating dances. “I have to get my work done,” Campbell said. “I might as well do it in front of a live audience.”