I’ve been using a new productivity tool for several weeks now that has positively impacted my output.
It’s called Focusmate, and it’s a virtual co-working service.
Many of us remote workers are familiar with co-working spaces — but covid19 has both whacked in-person attendance and also driven an enormous amount of people out of their workplaces and into their homes.
So, what then, is virtual co-working?
It’s a video call with a random partner.
It’s interesting because most productivity utilities and advice center around isolation. Turn off your notifications, flip the sign on the door to “do not disturb,” and do your work in your little cocoon of solitude.
Focusmate is an inversion of this model, it’s social by design, but it never feels invasive or voyeuristic. It just feels productive.
How does Focusmate work?
Log into Focusmate, and you’re greeted with a calendar. Sessions begin every 15 minutes (6:00, 6:15, 6:30, and so on) and last 50 minutes in total.
Once you’re booked for a session, it goes like this:
- Join the session
- Get connected to your randomly selected Focusmate partner
- Go live on camera
- Discuss what you’re going to accomplish over the next 50 minutes
- Ask your partner what they’re going to accomplish
- Work (mostly on mute)
- Check-in again at the end to go over what happened
To see it in action, here’s a Youtube video explaining how a Focusmate session works (actually recorded during a sample session).
Here’s a screenshot of the interface:
It’s an uncomfortable idea, but it works. After the first few sessions, all of the friction and anxiety I felt melted away, and I realized there was something special here.
Why does Focusmate work?
I think there are two components to the success of the platform.
First, the simple act of having clarity on what I’m going to be working on for the next hour is essential. I know that I have to explain it to a stranger, so I always spend a few minutes thinking critically about what I should be doing.
Second, during the session, I feel accountable to my partner. I can glance down to my second monitor (where I keep the video feed) and see them diligently working away. I can’t tell if they’re looking at me, but I feel motivated to get things done. I feel friction getting up and walking off-screen (etiquette is to let your partner know in the chat). I feel a sense of duty and responsibility to get my stuff done and to be there to help motivate my partner.
When it’s over, both sides candidly share how it went. In cases where it didn’t go so well, or you lost focus, it’s common to get (or say) a few words of understanding and encouragement. Most people sign off with some variation of “thanks for helping me work today.”
The messaging from Focusmate encourages you to schedule your sessions in advance, but I never do. I have a pretty rigid schedule for when I’m “hands-on keyboard,” and I typically plan to spend most of my working time, as my schedule blocks allow, in sessions.
I rely on it so much that when I don’t have the required 50 minutes available, I feel distinctly unequipped for real progress.
Who uses Focusmate?
I’ve met people from all over the world. My first few and last few sessions of each day tend to have non-US users, which is always fun. Some people are talkative and interested, and others are just there to get their things done, which ranges from typical computer work to laundry, exercise, or cleaning.
As you might expect, there’s a healthy cohort of tech workers. I’ve met people from several famous startups. I’m always fascinated when I meet older people or people from different cultures who might be doing something away from the keyboard. It’s a neat peek into other’s lives and brings some fascinating variety to your day.
The revenue model for Focusmate is simple. You get three sessions per week for free, and you can pay $5 per month to unlock Focusmate Turbo, which gives you unlimited sessions. I’m a turbo subscriber, as are most of the people that I know who use the service.
It’s certainly not a lot of money per user. It looks like Focusmate raised $122k on Republic back in January of 2019, but I was unable to find a lot of detail following the raise.
Focusmate Tech Observations
The service seems to operate with the daily.co api (a popular “1 click WebRTC” video API for developers). This platform also appears to enable a reasonable degree of analytics instrumentation to help Focusmate make the service better over time.
During my fifty or so sessions, I’ve not had many hiccups. I’ve switched between VPN locations during the chat, and after a few seconds of “connection lost,” the video comes back, and my partner is often none the wiser.
Occasionally your partner doesn’t show up. After waiting 2 minutes, you’re asked whether you’d like to continue waiting or be matched with a new partner. I’ve selected to be matched to a new partner in almost every case, which takes maybe 30 seconds. I’m not sure if the no-shows are more prevalent on the sessions that aren’t scheduled far in advance, but it would make sense to me if that were true. I’d say this happens maybe 5-7% of the time.
There are no annoying notifications or social engagement features.
In my experience, the vast majority of users will go on mute, but sometimes a few users with poor connections may disconnect, and when they rejoin they’ll be unmuted.
All in all, Focusmate is an outstanding service. If I had to nitpick, I’d love to get more support for groups. It would be cool to make a group of friends or colleagues and be able to schedule out work-times in advance. It seems like this is coming, but according to many posts in the official Facebook community, it’s been that way for a long time.
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I'm a developer, marketer, and writer based in Appleton, Wisconsin.