What ADHD Body Doubling is and why it's increasing in popularity.
The science behind Body Doubling: Dopaminergic response to social interactions, Social Facilitation Theory, Mirror Neurons, Human Motivation Theory, Polyvagal Theory, and the Hawthorne Effect.
How to practice Body Doubling effectively to boost productivity.
Resources to try Body Doubling right away.
Have you ever wondered why working in a public space can make you more productive? Maybe it's the mild hum of activity or the subtle pressure of strangers' presence. This article will dive into the science behind the idea, also known as body doubling, examine the scientific theories behind it, and recommend tips on how you can replicate the effect anywhere, anytime, and make it even more productive. Welcome to the world of Body Doubling
What is ADHD body doubling?
Body Doubling is a productivity strategy well-known within the ADHD community where the presence of another person enhances your focus. This accompanying person is the "body double," a term coined in 1996 by Linda Anderson, MA, MCC, SCAC, following her experience with an ADHD client. Essentially, having people around you cultivates a sense of soft accountability that pulls you into the task at hand and away from your thoughts. If you've ever worked at a coffee shop, library, office, or any other public space, you've experienced a mild form of body doubling.
Your body double can be anyone—friends, partners, family members, or even strangers—and the technique works virtually as well as it does in-person. You can body double with one person or in a group. Ideally, your body double is also working on their own tasks in parallel, signaling to you that you should stay on task as well. Later in the article, we'll share some simple strategies to body double successfully and reliably.
People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often struggle with low dopamine levels that affect their executive functioning, especially for doing boring tasks like cleaning the room or doing the dishes. As a coping strategy, many ADHDers would call a friend to keep them company while performing the task, which is a version of ADHD body doubling. As we'll soon learn in more depth, research has shown that social interactions can helps increase dopamine.
According to Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., author of "More Attention, Less Deficit" and "Understand Your Brain, Get More Done: The ADHD Executive Functions Workbook," body doubling works because, “If somebody else is in the room, there's a little bit of social pressure to use your time well.”
Since the Covid-19 Pandemic, we've seen a rise in interest in body doubling as ADHD diagnoses increased, particularly among adult women. Epic's research reveals a near doubling of new adult ADHD diagnoses in women aged 23–29 and 30–49 years from 2020 to 2022. While ADHD-focused organizations like CHADD and ADDitude Magazine have long championed the potential benefits of Body Doubling, only recently has mainstream media outlets like CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times begun to spotlight the phenomenon, sometimes using the term "virtual coworking" to describe body doubling.
Why Does Body Doubling Work? The Science
The reason body doubles work are numerous and varied. While there's no direct research on how they help combat ADHD and improve motivation, we can understand their effectiveness through the the following scientific theories: Dopaminergic Response to Social Interactions, Social Facilitation Theory, Mirror Neurons, Human Motivation Theory, Polyvagal Theory and the Hawthorne Effect.
Dopaminergic Response to Social Interactions
The "low dopamine hypothesis" for ADHD suggests that people with ADHD have reduced dopamine levels, particularly in the prefrontal cortex and striatum — brain regions crucial for executive functions like attention, impulse control, and reward anticipation. Body doubling may be helpful because the social arrangement induces a dopamine release.
For over a century, researchers have studied social facilitation – how the presence of others affects individual performance. Norman Triplett from Indiana University initially observed in his 1898 paper that cyclists training with peers performed better than when training alone. Specifically, with the "co-action effect," researchers have observed an increase in task performance purely due to having another person present performing the same task. With the "audience effect," researchers have shown that the presence of an audience affects performance. This explains why body doubling is effective, and can be even more effective if you and your body double are performing the same task in parallel.
A popular area of research for the past 30 years is related to the idea of “mirror neurons” — whether they exist and how much they explain how we as humans govern our behavior. fMRI scans have established that there are brain areas that play a causal role in imitating another person's behavior. Just like how we yawn when we see other people yawn, seeing other people focus on performing tasks make us want to do the same thing, potentially explaining why body doubling with someone who is also committed to remaining focused can be powerful.
Human Motivation Theory
Dr. David McClelland identified three primary human motivators in his 1961 book, "The Achieving Society": a need for achievement, affiliation, and power. According to McClelland, these motivators are acquired rather than innate, shaped by life experiences, including our reference groups. For example, an individual who compares themselves to a reference group that is high in achievement-oriented behavior may be more motivated to achieve themselves. Body doubling can place us in a reference group focused on progress and concentration, inspiring us to mirror those traits.
Dr. Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory links our physiological state to our psychological experiences. According to the theory, when individuals with ADHD engage in body doubling, they experience a calming effect due to a shift from a state of hyperarousal (sympathetic state) or hypoarousal (dorsal state) to a state of calm engagement (ventral state). This shift allows for enhanced focus, concentration, and productivity.
The Hawthorne Effect is the phenomenon where people alter their behavior due to the awareness of being observed. This theory originated from studies at the Western Electric factory at Hawthorne, near Chicago, between 1924 and 1933, where managers monitored workers closely and saw an increase in productivity. However, a 2014 literature review of related experiments yielded mixed results regarding its validity. From our perspective, body doubling should not have an implied hierarchy or difference in power dynamic. The best way to body double is with peers who can help cultivate a sense of “we are in this together."
How to body double effectively for ADHD?
Even though there's no single established method of effective body doubling for ADHD, based on the science and the millions of hours of body doubling we power every month at Flow Club. Here are the four steps to effective body doubling for ADHD:
Use a timer to create structure
Set clear rules of engagement
Stay visible and accountable
Cultivate a friendly and supportive environment
1. Use a timer to create structure
ADHD Coach and ADHD Support Talk Radio host Tara McGillicuddy points out that “most people combine body doubling with the Pomodoro Method.”
Pomodoro or not, using a timer of any sort supercharges body doubling by addressing common ADHD symptoms of executive dysfunction, time blindness, and hyperfocus. Working to a timer facilitates executive function by asking you to remain on task for only a limited time, minimizing overwhelm. A timer also keeps the passage of time top-of-mind, helping with time blindness and better task estimation, something ADHDers often struggle with according to research. Finally, reaching the end of a timer provides a dopamine reward and an essential break, preventing hyperfocus and burnout.
2. Set clear rules of engagement
Body doubling can fail when your body double becomes a distraction. Jessica McCabe, creator of the popular How to ADHD YouTube channel, advises choosing a body double who won't distract you from your task. “People who are at talking for hours while you clean out your closet…might not be a good fit when you’re trying to finish a term paper,” says McCabe.
To prevent distraction, make it clear that this isn't a regular hangout or call, and set specific rules of engagement. For instance, agree with your body double to refrain from talking until the timer ends, after which you can chat during a short break.
3. Stay visible and accountable
Merely having someone nearby or on the phone can be productive enough. However, it's more helpful for both you and your body double to remain visible to each other. This is because ADHD individuals often experience an "out of sight, out of mind" phenomenon. Thus, maintaining visibility is key. We recommend turning on video chat and building in quick verbal check-ins with your body double to enhance the sense of buy-in and accountability.
4. Cultivate a friendly and supportive environment
To counteract this, it's important to establish a supportive, judgment-free zone with your body doubles. Recruit individuals who either have ADHD or can empathize with your struggles. Remember, everyone's brain and work styles differ, so keep interactions positive and stress-free.
Is Body Doubling Just For People With ADHD?
No. While it's one of the most effective coping strategies for ADHD, the technique can be used by neurotypical people looking to increase motivation, eliminate potential distractions and complete tasks.
Start body doubling right away
To understand the benefits of body doubling, the best way is to experience it. Virtual body doubling websites like Flow Club streamlines the experience by bringing together a community of like-minded individuals, especially adults with ADHD, who understand what you're going through and can be your virtual body double. Flow Club's software platform coordinates schedules, structures sessions, and is purposefully designed to help you stay focused, improve executive functioning, and get the most out of your time. It's free to try. There's also other options for body doubling online like Focusmate, Caveday, and Flown.
Group ADHD coaching programs can also serve as a valuable resource, as many coaches incorporate body doubling sessions into their programs. There are also Facebook Groups for body doubling. If you prefer a less structured experience, numerous Discord communities exist where students cowork in voice channels.
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