By Dr Alice Siberry
Is your new year’s resolution to find and maintain your productivity, or to simply to try and meet your goals in the first place?
One way neurodivergent people maintain their productivity and stick to their to-do list is through body-doubling.
What is body-doubling?
Body-doubling, or having an accountability partner, simply means doing a task in the presence of another person. This person might physically assist with a task, but more commonly, they are simply present whilst you complete the task. Often, they will work on their own tasks at the same time.
Such tasks might feel complex or challenging to complete and / or they might provide low levels of stimulation. Having another person present makes the task appear more rewarding by:
- Adding subtle pressure to complete a task.
- Creating a psychological reward (being able to tell the person what they achieved during their time together).
- Having a calming presence to assist with emotional regulation (for example if the task is causing anxiety).
- Having someone present who can answer questions, or even work with you side-by-side to complete an overwhelming task.
Body-doubling is a common productivity strategy used by people with ADHD. The reason many ADHDers use body-doubling is because social encounters activate the dopamine pathway (Kopec, Smith, and Bilbo, 2019), which means having another person present whilst trying to complete a task assists with:
Many ADHDers report having trouble getting started, which leads to procrastination behaviours. In a study by Wiwatowska et al. (2022), students procrastinated less when they worked in groups, with the group creating a sense of accountability. It appeared the social encounter stimulated pathways in the brain to enable them to self-motivate and get started on the task.
Whilst the internal motivation of people with ADHD is often lower (due to a lack of dopamine production in the brain), external factors such as feedback or a sense of achievement and reward can often provide motivation, which leads to better task completion.
In some cases, a task can become all-consuming due to its perceived complexity. This elicits feelings of frustration and anxiety. Body doubling has been shown to provide perspective for tasks that feel overwhelming and can act as a source of calm.
How to try body-doubling
There has been conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of body doubling, in particular, that sometimes it can cause feelings of shame (asking yourself ‘why can’t I just do this task’) or even provide an additional distraction.
However, many have seen the benefits of body-doubling, and it can be recommended as a productivity strategy for everyone to try. These are our top tips for getting started:
- Find a suitable accountability partner – this might be a trusted friend or colleague. They should be someone you can trust to keep you on track (and not use this as an opportunity chat with you about other things!)
- Set up a meeting – this can be online or in-person. Body-doubling can work just as well online, with lots of people documenting the benefits of using social media as a way of body doubling. The timings of your meeting will depend on your task, but upwards of 3 hours seems to work well (with breaks built in – see point 4!)
- At the start of the meeting, set your goals – the purpose of your body double is to ensure that they empower you to set a reasonable goal for the time you are together.
- Make sure you agree on the ‘rules’ – between you and your body double agree about taking breaks and whether you need some check-in points to ask questions and ensure you’re on the right track. This will depend on the length of your meeting and your task. If working online, agree whether you will work with cameras on or off.
- Start your task!
- At the end of the time, discuss your progress and be supportive of each other and what you have achieved. This should be a positive experience, even if you don’t finish the task or meet your goal.
References and resources
ADDitude – Get More Done with a Body Double
CHADD – Body Doubling
Body doubling apps
Kopec, A. M., Smith, C. J. and Bilbo, S. D. (2019) Neuro-Immune mechanisms regulating social behaviour: Dopamine as mediator? Trends in Neurosciences.
Wiwatowska, E., Czajeczny, D. and Michalowski, J. M. (2022) Decreased prepartory activation and inattention to cues suggest lower activation of proactive cognitive control among high procrastinating students. Cognitive, Affective, and Behaviour Neuroscience, 22 (1), 171-186.