Starting March 2021, I’ve been spending the majority of my working time co-working with my friends over video in my virtual gather.town office.
The sessions are usually pre-scheduled, last 2-16 hours, and we do brief check-ins every 30 minutes.
Most people I co-worked with told me that they really enjoyed the experience and that they were a lot more productive than usual. Several people I did a 10 or 12 hour session with told me afterwards that they didn’t realize it’s possible to just sit down and work for this number of hours with only one or two 30 minute breaks, while not becoming tired or losing focus.
Such anecdotes are easy to dismiss: there’s an infinite number of productivity techniques that work once, blow you away, and then you never return to them again.
Thus, I wrote the first draft of this post back in April and waited more than 3 months to see if this technique stops working. It has not stopped working and in fact has only become more powerful. I have improved a bunch of things about the format and some of my friends continue to co-work in my office even in my absence and sometimes even bring their friends in.
Three important notes:
- People who were interested in co-working with me were probably selected for those who would find co-working useful and only about one half of the people I co-worked with ended up doing more than one session with me.
- I am very ADHD and am pretty anxious (e.g. reading email often makes me anxious). Focus is difficult for me, unless I’m coding, writing or playing videogames, and this post is very much written from my personal perspective
- Co-working in this format won’t be very useful if you’re very focused on your work anyway. Unfortunately I neither code, nor write, nor play videogames much these days. Working on New Science, maybe 30% of my tasks are super fun, 40% are pretty neural, and the last 30% are soul-destroying.
If you try co-working with your friends in this format, please let me know whether it worked and what issues you encountered. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why co-work in the first place?
I spent many years thinking about productivity, trying all sorts of techniques, and even reaching #1 on the front page of Hacker News with my Every productivity thought I’ve ever had, as concisely as possible. I think almost all of my ideas from that post still check out and yet I no longer believe that it’s possible to achieve extremely high productivity (say 80 hours a week of focused work) sustained over long periods of time working on difficult projects alone. I define a “difficult project” to have some or all of the following characteristics:
- Has long, noisy, and painful, rather than short and clear, feedback loops
- Does not have a well-defined scope
- Does not have a well-defined deadline
- Induces anxiety
At the end of the day, productivity systems break, important work gets avoided, and even when I nominally work on such hard things, the sustained level of focus is maybe 30-50%, compared to that achieved when being obsessed with coding, writing or videogames. Scheduled co-working sessions mean that I:
- Find focusing on difficult tasks and projects much much easier and don’t get lost browsing the internet
- Don’t randomly delay starting work for half a day
- Don’t randomly stop work in the middle of the day
What is the format?
- Bathroom, getting food/coffee, etc. is fine but if you leave for >5 minutes, please write what’s going on in the chat
- If the session is longer than 4-6 hours, it’s ok to have 1-2 30-minute breaks for food/walks/sports/etc
- Social media and email not related to work not allowed by default - discuss this separately if want to do social media or email
We pre-schedule the vast majority of the sessions in advance.
The biggest problem with pretty much all normal productivity techniques is that you need them the most when procrastinating really badly but because of the way our undercooked sausage of a brain works this is exactly the time when you’re least likely to actually use them.
For example, a common procrastination advice is to work on something for just 1 minute to overcome the work activation barrier. It is totally true that if you work for even 1 minute, continuing to work is much easier. However, (1) you need to decide to do this spontaneously while procrastinating – which is hard – and (2) my brain knows that committing to work for 1 minute is just a trick to get it to work for a lot longer and therefore resists doing it about as much as it resists committing to work for a normal amount of time. So this trick simply doesn’t work.
Ordinarily, deciding to work at some point in the future rather than right now is easy and at the same time pretty much useless because you’re just going to delay work again. However, because you are scheduling a co-working session with someone specific, you’re probably going to actually show up at the scheduled time to avoid letting them down and are going to be working for n scheduled hours instead of never starting or taking forever to start or getting derailed at some point during the day.
We do check-ins every 30 minutes.
This is the single most important part of my co-working. Just being in the office with other people or co-working with someone over zoom without check-ins kind of works, but after you do this with someone a few times it’s easy to feel comfortable enough to just revert to your baseline level of productivity and to stop working really hard.
Check-ins make sure that you are actually still working. During the check-in we tell each other (1) what we are working on and (2) whether we are fully focused or not. Both of these questions are important and should never be skipped. You should always know what concretely you’re working on and what the next steps are, especially for difficult projects, and if you’re not fully focused, you should figure out why that is and what to do about it.
One thing that I usually do when focusing is difficult despite these check-ins (which happens occasionally to me when doing something really hard or unpleasant), is I can tell my partner about the difficulty focusing, set the timer for 5 minutes, and write whether I was focused in gather.town chat every 5 minutes until the next check in. I find that these 5-minute text check-ins are sufficient for full focus on pretty much any task, however unpleasant.
If both people are fully focused and are just continuing to work on the same thing, the check-in can take like 20 seconds. If there’s a new task that needs to be explained or thought about, the check-in can take a couple of minutes. Just talking a bit is fine too sometimes. One person is responsible for check-ins in the beginning of the hour; the other person in the middle of the hour.
We co-work in my virtual office in gather.town sitting in the same private space, with video on, muted
Zoom or Google Meet should work as well but I prefer gather.town because it actually feels like an office and I actually feel like I’m sitting next to someone and thus enjoy co-working more.
Sometimes there are several people present in my virtual office and it’s pretty amazing to be able to just walk up to someone and chat for a minute or to do a bit of “water cooler” talk once in a while.
Something that also happens regularly in my gather.town office and is not possible over zoom is when there are two pairs of people co-working, then one person needs to finish the session, and so the person who is left without a pair can just walk up to the pair still working and join them. 3 people co-working is usually fine - check-ins become a bit longer but not too long and if the 4th person joins, you can just split in pairs again.
These days, about a half of my co-working sessions are recurring and about a half are scheduled ad hoc.
- e.g. it’s fine for me to check email regularly because most of it is work-related and I like replying to email quickly. I usually check social media once every 3 hours (at 12, 3, 6, and 9 hours)
Thanks to Ago Lajko, Misha Yagudin, Anastasia Kuptsova, Ben Kuhn, and Stephen Malina, for feedback on earlier drafts of this post.
Origins of this technique
A note from my journal dated January 22, 2021:
Being independent and without a boss and constantly having to engage with the hardest/first time/anxious things all alone is super highly unusual actually I think. People always work in teams or they work on things where hard things are pushed onto you and you just have to do them or if they work alone they just do the things that induce obsessions like coding or that they’re already good at, nobody ever just does hard things they’ve never done before alone 16 hours a day. Yes, I don’t think I’ve quite faced anything like this before, where there’s active big anxiety-inducing events hitting me all the time and I work completely alone without any real deadlines.
Appendix: why Ultraworking and Focusmate don’t really work
The most important thing that neither Ultraworking nor Focusmate get is scheduling extended work in advance and personal accountability to someone you know.
- Focusmate forces you to switch partners every hour and this is both mentally taxing and means that sometimes you just work with people who are not very enjoyable to work with
- Although you schedule sessions in advance on Focusmate, cancelling on a stranger is much much easier than cancelling on someone you know and you can’t really get comfortable with a stranger
- For me the biggest fucking problem of the day is waking up and starting work. Ultraworking is useless because you can’t commit to sessions in advance
- Both Focusmate and Ultraworking just lack the flexibility necessary when you try to spend your entire day in them. Sometimes I have a 30 minute call which turns into a 60 minute call. Working with someone 1:1 I can quickly email my partner that I’m late and it’s fine. In Focusmate you have to cancel your session and get punished by them. Ultraworking means that you’re off cycle with them now. Last time I had a call in the middle of the Ultraworking cycle and tried to get back onto their zoom call 40 minutes later they literally just didn’t let me in lmao. I also just find the 10 minute breaks every 30 minutes really annoying and distracting and had to mute the zoom call when trying Ultraworking.
- Some of the work we need to do sounds dumb or just doesn’t sound like work. For example, I sometimes spend half a day just sitting around thinking about something or closing chrome tabs. I found that when co-working with strangers I feel guilty doing tasks like closing tabs, even if they’re good and necessary.
Both Focusmate and Ultraworking are rigid in the wrong places (e.g. around meetings) and very flexible in the wrong places (can’t commit to a 12 hour work session in advance). 1:1 co-working is perfect for these. You can have your meetings and deal with unexpected shit that comes up during the day while also having the ability to schedule a 2-16 hour work session in advance that you can’t just punt on.
As a final note, it seems to me that the business model of both Focusmate and Ultraworking might steer them away from improving. The ideal co-working format I discovered (scheduling regular sessions with someone you know and working over gather.town) is 100% free and doesn’t require a middle-man, meaning that were Focusmate or Ultraworking shift to them away from their proprietary systems, they would effectively put themselves out of business.
A similar idea by Jeffrey Kaplan: Lecture #8 - My Method for Defeating Procrastination (h/t Doyen Mandelbrot, decoupled)