I spend my days working with strangers on the Internet — is that weird?

Brigitte Gemme
6 min readFeb 9, 2022

Focusmate changed my life. It might change yours, too.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

8:43 a.m.: I walk into our home, my arms loaded with the random missing groceries I bought on the way home after dropping the kids off at school. I put them away and wash the remaining breakfast dishes.

8:47 a.m.: I hurry into the shower because I haven’t had a chance to have one yet. I should probably wash my hair.

8:55 a.m.: Oh gosh quick, it’s almost 9. My legs aren’t completely dry and it makes it tricky to pull up my socks.

8:59 a.m.: C’m’on Windows, finish booting up, what’s taking you so long?

9:00 a.m.: Chrome’s up and running and I’m logging into Focusmate. Click “join.” My “mate” isn’t there yet — I should probably take that wet towel off my hair.

9:01 a.m.: “Oh hi Peter/Grace/George/Yulong, haven’t seen you in a while! What are you working on today?”

Thus starts my every weekday morning since discovering Focusmate thanks to an Internet friend back in April.

Most work days, I try to get five Focusmate sessions in, with each session lasting 50 minutes. Technically, I could match with five different strangers, but although the platform has hundreds of active session every hour, over time I end up bumping into the same people quite often. I don’t know much about those individuals, but there’s a sort of quiet intimacy about those pairings. More importantly, there is enormous gratitude: without them, I am not sure how I would get anything done. I bet they feel the same.

What is Focusmate?

Focusmate is, in their motto’s words, “where life gets done.” It’s a platform that pairs people who have stuff to do together in a video call for 50- or 25-minute sessions. One can do anything they need to do — write, read, study, do problems, cook, clean, play an instrument, meditation, even exercise — as long as they are on camera (practically) the whole time. Mostly, working as I do during North American daytime hours, it means a lot of computer work.

Each session begins with a small intro, just saying hello and telling each other what we plan to do. Ideally, that’s when we say encouraging things to each other, like “you got this!” Then, in most cases, we mute ourselves and go about our work. When the time is elapsed, a harp announces the end and we both unmute to report back on our goals. “How did it go?” We can cheer for our successes, or commiserate if somehow a task took longer than we thought it would. (That happens often.) Then we say goodbye and click “leave,” sometimes to never see each other again.

It costs $5 per month if one wants to do more than 3 sessions per week. Why it doesn’t cost more, I don’t know, but I am grateful the service is priced affordably so practically anyone who needs it — from all over the world — can use it. For the record, I have no affiliation with the platform — but my life depends on it.

Why would anyone need something like that?

About five seconds after learning that Focusmate existed, I knew I needed it in my life. Remember going to the coffee shop to study with a friend in college? I was that friend who could really only make progress on important readings when we worked together. As for writing, in those pre-laptop days, I would have to do it alone at home, which explains that it wouldn’t get done until I had to pull an all-nighter in the hours before an essay was due. It was stressful, unhealthy, and the essay itself would have certainly been better if I had worked on it a bit every day over several weeks instead of 12 hours in a row right against the deadline.

In my high school yearbook, under my picture, one can read that I liked leaving assignments not to the last hour but, quite literally, to the last minute. It was written in jest… but really it wasn’t funny. I cultivated relatively good grades so no-one suspected the pain and the shame that whatever I achieved cost me.

Somehow, thanks to the painful magic of deadlines, I managed to keep on plugging away and get a few things done, including a PhD dissertation. For the latter, I benefited from the companionship of fellow students in Gina Hiatt’s Academic Ladder Writing Club. The small group accountability helped me make daily progress. But after walking across the stage with a big floppy hat and transitioning to life as an ordinary young professional, I was on my own again.

Although writing is my first love, I often wound up in positions where I organized events. Events are great for someone like me because they have natural, unavoidable deadlines, and highly public accountability. The pressure to get organized and make it happen has been enough to keep me going. But was that where I have the most to contribute to the world? Probably not.

Do I have ADHD? Perhaps I’m just human.

Since signing up for Focusmate, I have written more and felt better about my work than I have at any time I can remember in my life. Saying that I find it blissful would be only slightly overstated. I have published one long blog post every work week, showed up on social media with a thoughtful contribution daily, created one new short program every month (I teach vegan cooking), and delivered all of my clients’ meal plans on time — and without stressing about it — practically every week. Improving my work — both in terms of quality and raw output — has allowed me to connect with more people (not just on Focusmate!), learn more, and serve others better.

Does that mean I have ADHD?

Sometimes, the doctor isn’t quite sure what the diagnosis is, but they’ll prescribe a remedy anyway. If the remedy works, then they’ll know what the diagnostic was.

If Focusmate, with its body doubling and Kohler effect, is such an effective remedy for me, maybe someone should have diagnosed me with ADHD earlier.

From a contemporary psychology viewpoint, that’s probably true. But I don’t like looking at it that way. Hey, I’m a sociologist. I have a profound mistrust of the DSM-5 and how it makes so many normal human behaviors targets for medicalized interventions.

Isn’t struggling to focus just one normal way to respond to the marvelous myriad of stimulating phenomena all around us in this day and age?

Since when has it been normal for humans to work in isolation from each other, punching keys on a little box all day long?

Focusmate is one of those technology fixes that bridges a gap between what humans are and where humanity has found itself. It’s a modest tool with revolutionary potential: imagine how much creative power could be unleashed if we all worked better by working together?

Brigitte Gemme is a vegan food educator, meal planner, and coach. After a PhD in sociology of higher education and a 15-year career in research management, she got impatient with the slow pace of planet-friendly change and decided to help individuals live a gentler life. If you need help deciding what’s for dinner, check out her meal plans at VeganFamilyKitchen.com. If you need personal guidance and accountability to embrace a gentler lifestyle, consider signing up for a free week with her on coach.me using coupon code BRIGITTEWEEK. Brigitte loves nothing more than helping more people eat more plants.

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Brigitte Gemme

Vegan cooking mentor, productivity coach, mom, runner, avid reader, PhD in sociology, certificate in nutrition, morning person. Author of _Flow in the Kitchen_.