Have you ever wondered why working in a public space can make you more productive? In part, this might be due to the soothing, mild hum of activity — but science has shown that the subtle influence of having people around, even if they are strangers, can increase your ability to focus and get things done.
This concept is known as body doubling — and in this article, we’ll explain what body doubling is (and why its popularity is increasing); provide tips on how to effectively use body doubling to improve productivity; explain how you can produce the effect anywhere, at any time; and share resources for getting started.
Welcome to the world of body doubling.
What Is ADHD Body Doubling?
Body doubling is a productivity strategy that’s well known within the ADHD community; the notion behind the strategy is that the presence of another person improves your ability to focus. This nearby 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 distracting thoughts. If you've ever worked at a coffee shop, a library, or an office, or in any other public space, you've likely experienced a form of body doubling.
Your body double can be anyone — a friend, a partner, a family member, or even a stranger — 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, signaling to you that you should stay on task as well. (Later in this article, we'll share some simple strategies for body doubling successfully and reliably.)
People with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) often struggle with low dopamine levels that affect their executive functioning, especially when it comes to completing boring tasks like cleaning a room or doing the dishes. As a coping strategy, many people with ADHD call a friend to keep them company while performing this kind of task, which is a version of ADHD body doubling. As we'll soon learn in more depth, research has shown that social interactions can help increase dopamine.
According to Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., the 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 start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in interest in body doubling as ADHD diagnoses have increased, particularly among adult women. Epic Research reported a near doubling of new adult ADHD diagnoses in women aged 23–29 and 30–49 from 2020 to 2022. While ADHD-focused organizations like CHADD and ADDitude Magazine have long championed the potential benefits of body doubling, mainstream media outlets like CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times have only recently begun to discuss the phenomenon, sometimes using the term "virtual coworking" to describe body doubling.
Why Does Body Doubling Work?
The reasons body doubling works are numerous and varied. While there's no direct research on how it helps combat ADHD and improve motivation, there are some scientific explanations and theories that can help us understand its effectiveness: the 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.
In a 2019 study by Kopec, Smith, and Bilbo, the authors demonstrated that social interactions can activate the brain's dopamine reward circuitry, increasing dopamine levels. A 2010 review of experiments related to social interactions, by Krach, Paulus, Bodden, and Kircher, also points to the rewarding aspect of well-executed social encounters.
Social Facilitation Theory
For more than a century, researchers have studied social facilitation — how the presence of others affects individual performance. Norman Triplett from Indiana University initially observed, as reported in an 1898 paper, that cyclists performed better when training with peers than when training alone. Specifically, researchers have observed something called the "co-action effect": an increase in task performance purely due to having another person present and performing the same task. Researchers have also reported on the "audience effect," or how the presence of an audience can positively affect performance. This explains why body doubling is effective, and why it 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 the way people imitate other people's behavior. Just like how we yawn when we see other people yawn, seeing other people focus on performing tasks makes 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, a need for affiliation, and a need for power. According to McClelland, these motivators are acquired rather than innate, and are shaped by life experiences, including our reference groups. For example, a person who compares themselves with 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
The Hawthorne Effect is the name for the phenomenon of people altering their behavior due to an 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 to Mitigate Symptoms of ADHD
Even though there's no single established method of body doubling to mitigate symptoms of ADHD, we’ve based these four steps to effective body doubling for ADHD on the previously discussed science and the millions of hours of body doubling we power every month at Flow Club:
- 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 people with ADHD often struggle with, according to research. Finally, reaching the end of a timed period 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, the 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 talking for hours while you clean out your closet … might not be a good fit when you’re trying to finish a term paper,” she says.
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. Therefore, 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
Many ADHD individuals struggle with Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD). The fear of judgment or embarrassment can discourage body doubling.
To counteract this, it's important to establish a supportive, judgment-free zone with your body doubles. Recruit people 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?
While body doubling is one of the most effective coping strategies for people with ADHD, the technique can also be used by neurotypical people looking to increase motivation, eliminate potential distractions, and complete tasks more efficiently.
Start Body Doubling Right Away
The best way to understand the benefits of body doubling is to experience it. Virtual body doubling websites like Flow Club streamline 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 are also other options for body doubling online, such as 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 co-work in voice channels.
Sources and Further Reading
 Jim Russell, Rp., Blaine Franklin, P., Piff, A., Steve Allen, M., & Barkley, E. (2023, March 30). Number of ADHD patients rising, especially among women. Epic Research. https://epicresearch.org/articles/number-of-adhd-patients-rising-especially-among-women
 Kopec, A. M., Smith, C. J., & Bilbo, S. D. (2019). Neuro-immune mechanisms regulating social behavior: Dopamine as mediator? Trends in Neurosciences, 42(5), 337–348. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2019.02.005
 Krach, S. (2010). The rewarding nature of social interactions. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2010.00022
 Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. The American Journal of Psychology, 9(4), 507. https://doi.org/10.2307/1412188
 Heyes, C., & Catmur, C. (2021). What happened to mirror neurons? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(1), 153–168. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691621990638
 McClelland, D. C. (1976). The achieving society. Irvington.
 Porges, S. W. (2022). Polyvagal theory: A science of safety. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 16. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2022.871227
 McCambridge, J., Witton, J., & Elbourne, D. R. (2014). Systematic review of the Hawthorne Effect: New Concepts are needed to study research participation effects. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 67(3), 267–277. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.08.015
 Ptacek, R., Weissenberger, S., Braaten, E., Klicperova-Baker, M., Goetz, M., Raboch, J., Vnukova, M., & Stefano, G. B. (2019). Clinical implications of the perception of time in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A Review. Medical Science Monitor, 25, 3918–3924. https://doi.org/10.12659/msm.914225