1000 Sessions with the Ultimate & Most Effective Productivity Tool: Focusmate

Use peer pressure to your advantage. Get your most important work done in video chat sessions with strangers. It works even for the shy, occasionally socially awkward introvert like myself.

Gracia Kleijnen
Feb 2 · 18 min read
Focusmate profile showing pic & stats: 1K completed sessions, timeliness score: 100%, monthly streak: 14, weekly streak: 23.
Focusmate profile showing pic & stats: 1K completed sessions, timeliness score: 100%, monthly streak: 14, weekly streak: 23.
Hitting the glorious 1K mark on the Focusmate platform. Screenshot by author.
Table of Contents· What is Focusmate?
·
How does Focusmate work?
·
How I came across Focusmate Virtual Coworking
·
How Focusmate has helped and is helping me get shit done
·
How Focusmate has enriched my life in unexpected ways
·
What I'd love to see on Focusmate
·
The downside
·
Getting Started
·
General tips for using Focusmate
·
Browser Extensions to use with Focusmate
·
Final words

What is Focusmate?

Focusmate is a virtual co-working platform that pairs you with an accountability buddy in a 50-minute video call during which you’ll each work on your own tasks, whatever those may be.

I’ve had Focusmates do a booty workout, strip an engine out of the car, or home school their three kids. Some use it for their morning routines, others use it to get client calls out of the way or simply to get started with their day.

How does Focusmate work?

Your Focusmate dashboard is a calendar. Here, you can book sessions every fifteen minutes, on-demand and around the clock. Each session lasts for 50 minutes.

Focusmate calendar with a selected time slot, and two buttons, one with Remove booking, one with Continue to booking.
Focusmate calendar with a selected time slot, and two buttons, one with Remove booking, one with Continue to booking.
Screenshot of part of the Focusmate calendar. Names of Focusmate partners are hidden.

What if you already have a confirmed session with another person, but you want to change the time slot?

Well, that’s no issue. Just cancel the session, and book another one in your preferred time slot. Be courteous of your partner though and try not to cancel a confirmed session within the last ten minutes. Of course, life sometimes happens and you have no other choice. There’s a rematching system in place in cases where you or the partner doesn’t show up.

Ten minutes before session start

A little play-button on the session that’s about to start will be clickable, and you’ll be able to enter the session. I recommend entering no earlier than 2–3 minutes before, as it’s possible that you’ll get rematched last-minute with someone else. And you don’t want to be waiting for a fictional partner, right?

Upcoming session, with date, time and name of the person. As long as you aren’t matched, the block will show “Matching…”
Upcoming session, with date, time and name of the person. As long as you aren’t matched, the block will show “Matching…”
The upper left corner of your calendar will show the session you have upcoming. As soon as the system finds a match, the “Matching…” will be replaced with a person’s name.

Inside the 50-minute Focusmate session

The rules are simple. Working with video on is mandatory. Then:

  • You can ask them how they are. (Not all Focusmates do this. Some prefer to get straight down to business.)
  • Share what each of you will be working on and share mic preferences (mics on or off).
  • Wish the other person luck, mute the mic (or not) and get to work.

After the session

When the timer hits 00:00, you’ll hear a harp sound, marking the end of the session. You can unmute, and both share how your session went. What remains is saying your goodbyes, until your paths cross again.

How I came across Focusmate Virtual Coworking

According to my profile overview I signed up to Focusmate in April 2019. I left my job earlier that year and had just made the jump to freelancing. In my head I drew out that I’d make money building things with code. That dream died several months in, as I found out that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do.

Oh how I can relate. Screenshot from Focusmate website.

How Focusmate has helped and is helping me get shit done

Where do I even start.

#1 It helps me get into flow state.

I focus on one or several tasks only during these 50 minutes, and ignore everything else, until I hear the harp sound breaking the silence.

#2 You are not alone.

As fellow Focusmate user Linda perfectly summed it up: “I never have to be alone again”. I know there is always someone there who also seeks a buddy to work together with.

#3 I let two people down by not showing up.

By booking a session with someone else, I am forced to show up at a certain time. If not, I am not only letting myself down, I am also letting them down. Focusmate users often plan their day with the tool. They expect the person they booked a session with to show up. It’s the least I can do.

#4 It’s helped me improve my time-management skills.

At the start of the session you vocalize your goals. I’m often delirious or overly ambitious and give the Focusmate a too-long-of-a-list with things I’d love to get done. Some call me out on it and ask “do you think you can get all of that done within this session?”. While blushing I acknowledge that it might be a lot. I always try, and do as much as I can. Trying to accomplish these goals that are actually too large force me to work smarter, go straight for the goal and waste as little time as possible. Even when I don’t tick off all list items, and this happens often, I gain a clearer picture of what I’m humanly capable of finishing within one 50-minute session.

#5 It’s helping me break big goals into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Sure, there are big tasks that eventually need to be completed. I often start a session saying, I need to work on campaign X. But that consists of a bunch of tasks, which I write out in the chat. You could say that it helps me make sense of how to attack the bigger picture. It feels like planning my route towards the mountain summit.

#6 It gives me insight into my most productive times.

In the “Settings” under “Email Notifications” you can choose to get calendar invites for each confirmed booking. These sessions automatically show up in my Google Calendar. At one glance, I can see how much (or little) I’ve been working this week. The same for all the previous weeks where I booked sessions. Seeing the times I typically work at, I stopped rigidly trying to force myself to work at this or that time, just because others are. I instead let it flow naturally towards the times I “tend to like” to work.

Focusmate Settings > Email Notifications. There’s two tickboxes for receiving calendar invites & performance reports.
Focusmate Settings > Email Notifications. There’s two tickboxes for receiving calendar invites & performance reports.
Tick these boxes to sync your calendar and have Focusmate sessions appear on it.
Progress report date 26–1–21 with 100% attendance score, 31 sessions last week, and 22 weeks weekly streak.
Progress report date 26–1–21 with 100% attendance score, 31 sessions last week, and 22 weeks weekly streak.
An example of a progress report. Yay! If you’re into fancy dashboards, you could auto-import these performance reports with your software of choice and display the data in graphs.
Focusmate sessions on a Google Calendar.
Focusmate sessions on a Google Calendar.
A random week in my Google calendar. Here’s how the Focusmate sessions show up.

#7 Focusmate helps me get over myself.

Being lazy, safe and comfortable is more beneficial for human survival. Of course my mind will try to trick me into slouching on the couch, forever. But that will not help me move ahead. So instead of giving in to the “I don’t feel like it today” (like I won’t tomorrow, nor the day after), I book a Focusmate session.

How Focusmate has enriched my life in unexpected ways

  • It’s a zero-cost (well okay, $5) way to meet people from different cultures and countries from around the globe. It’s still mind-blowing to me that the next person could be working from a Singaporean high-rise building, or a cottage in the Colombian mountains. I enjoy getting a brief glimpse of what their life and living surroundings look like. I appreciate this even more during times of Covid where travel and exploring abroad is reduced to a bare minimum.
  • I built some great friendships as a complete side effect to regularly using Focusmate. There are regular faces you keep seeing on the calendar or in sessions. Over time, you chat, and you chat a little bit more. When I see I’m matched with someone I love to work with, I get excited! I look forward to seeing them again, hearing what’s been going on in their lives, and knowing that we’ll have a good session together. The only downside to building friendships is that you might spent a large part of your session catching up with people and chatting for too long.
  • The community around Focusmate is strong, tight-knit and supportive. I’m not much of a talker. A tool like this can only work if the people using it feel safe and comfortable showing their faces on-screen to a complete stranger. Kindness and respect are highly valued and upheld within the community. There’s a Facebook community group where we share wins, ask questions and the like. In rare cases where a discussion escalates, we’re not afraid to uphold each other to the standard of respect and kindness.
  • I get productivity tips, book recommendations, useful websites and life advice merely by reading people’s bios. There’s something to learn from everyone.
  • The Friday group sessions! These get-togethers feel somewhat more casual and relaxed. It’s a zoom meeting that starts at the full hour, and lasts for 8 hours or sometimes even 24, depending on how many people are available to host it. They work well for me when I want to spend time on personal projects without going all hardcore as I prefer to do in the one-on-ones.
    Cool fact: very often community members take on the role of host. During the break you are free to unmute and share how your session went, and what you’ll do for the next one (if you plan to stick around). If you don’t feel comfortable talking out loud in front of a group, then you are free to share this in the chatbox. Or to continue silently lurking here while being surrounded by people.
  • It helps maintain my social skills. I am currently learning to overcome some social anxiety. Situations where people normally have no issues functioning and interacting with other humans I don’t always handle all too well. Corona and all the related lockdowns have made human contact less common, reducing the available situations where one can practice, well, being a human. By regularly talking with strangers on Focusmate, I prevent myself from getting completely anti-social and nurture my speaking and interaction skills in a supportive environment.

What I’d love to see on Focusmate

This is more a wish list of features I’d like to see some day.

  • More integrations, such as with Toggl, the time tracking tool I use.
  • Increasing the speed would be amazing. There’s a few seconds load time on every click. Getting rid of this would improve my user experience.

The downside

The only downside I can think of now is that you might have to deal with tech or connectivity issues. These are out of your control, but if the screen is constantly flashing, it can disrupt your concentration.

Getting Started

Three weekly sessions are for free. These are great to test out the platform and see if you like it.

  1. Check your timezone settings. It would be a waste to wait for the session to open when it hasn’t even started yet in the selected timezone. Or accidentally miss a session.
  2. Read the Community Guidelines. They’re simple and straight-forward.
  3. Join the Facebook — Official Community group. Even if you’re afraid to book your first session, by lurking in the group you’ll get a feel of how people treat each other. You will quickly learn that you have little to fear and that you have a community there to support you.

General tips for using Focusmate

  • Try to enter the session one minute early. Punctuality is appreciated. I often find the most punctual people already there waiting for me, their eyes fixated on the screen. This is why I do my best to enter the session around one minute before start. This way, we can exchange greetings and tasks before the 50-minute mark, and make full use of our time together.
  • Keep chit-chat at the beginning to a minimum. If you vibe well, you can always chat more at the end of the session when you’ve already gotten some work done.
  • Check the partner’s profile beforehand, if you have time. The section with what they think contributes to a successful session, biggest pet peeve and what they’d love their Focusmate’d do gives you a lot of information about whether or not you’ll be a good match.
  • Take note of the emojis in peoples’ names. As long as there’s no filtering function to separate desk 🖥 and non-desk work (doing exercise, cleaning), or mics on🔈 or off🔇, people tend to add emojis to let you know what they prefer. Then you don’t have to dive into their profiles. The only way to currently prevent working with people who don’t share your preferences is to cancel sessions with them if you’re matched, or block them, so they won’t show up on your calendar in future.
  • Go into this kind and open-minded. There’s a wide variety of people using the platform. Not 100% of the people you work with will be a good match. This is inevitable. Give them the benefit of the doubt! Have a session with them. If you didn’t enjoy working together, you can always block them afterwards to prevent getting matched in future. Also, some people are more chatty and talkative than others. Try to be flexible and adapt to each other.
  • Use the blocking feature to curate your Focusmate experience. Blocking a user prevents you from seeing them on the calendar, and you won’t be able to book sessions with each other. Take care: blocking is not the same as reporting. Reporting is done when a partner violates community guidelines (e.g. is rude, makes inappropriate or sexually tinted comments).
  • Pro tip: remember that you can mute one’s tab. Sometimes a partner wants to keep their mic on. For me that’s no issue at all, because I will sneakily mute the tab anyway (and unmute at the end of the session). Or when the connection breaks, and they come back on, they forget that the mic is still unmuted. To not bother them, I just mute the tab and unmute it at the end instead of talking them out of their focus.
How to mute a tab on Safari. Click Window > Mute this tab. Don’t forget to unmute it towards the end of the session.
How to mute a tab on Safari. Click Window > Mute this tab. Don’t forget to unmute it towards the end of the session.
On Safari, click Window > Mute this tab. Don’t forget to unmute it towards the end of the session so you can talk with your partner.
  • Based on your gender, it’s possible to match with people of your own gender and non-binary people only. Personally I like to match with whoever the heck is available. My only criteria are that the partner prefers mics off too, and that they’re on-screen most of the time; I don’t care if they’re doing jumping jacks or dusting their porcelain collection.
    Gender-matching has long-time been a highly requested feature. And now it’s here. I can very well imagine that some people feel more comfortable working with people of the same sex only.
Gender matching feature on Focusmate.
Gender matching feature on Focusmate.
The gender preferences feature in Focusmate that might help make people feel more safe, and curate their experience as with whom they’d like to be matched.

What if the Focusmate stands me up?

There’s a rematching feature in place. If no partner is there, a popup will appear at the 48-minute mark, asking you if you want to wait for your current partner, or get rematched with someone else who is also waiting. This popup stays on-screen for 3 minutes. I advice to not wait too long to click. People tend to smash the rematch button as soon as it pops up. The chances of finding a partner will be lower the longer you wait.

Focusmate popup that appears at 48 minute mark. Choose to wait for partner, or request to be rematched
Focusmate popup that appears at 48 minute mark. Choose to wait for partner, or request to be rematched
This popup will appear at the 48 minute mark. You can choose to wait for your partner, or request a new one.
Focusmate popup that appears once the system found a new partner.
Focusmate popup that appears once the system found a new partner.
If you clicked the “Request new partner” button at the previous step, the system will find you a new Focusmate. There will be a countdown, and then you’ll be rematched. Note: I hid the original profile pic and drew a smiley face on top for illustrative purposes. This was not really the person’s profile pic!

What if I cannot afford the $5?

There are scholarships for this. If you’re in a situation where you are currently not able to pay this amount, I urge you to write the team and ask them about the possibilities.

Will Focusmate work for me if I have social anxiety or similar?

I’m struggle with this and I’ve managed to survive haha. I handle the sessions well, because I know exactly what is expected of me: say hello, how are you, what will you be working on, mic or on off, good luck. That’s all. During the session you work on your own things, just like the Focusmate.

I’d like to use Focusmate, but I’m afraid of perverts…

I understand. In the extremely rare cases this happens, the person who violates the rules gets reported and kicked off the platform forever. I really want to emphasise the word rare here, as this is exception, not the rule. According to a recent Focusmate statement, the extreme incident rate is 1 out of 100,000, which is low. The Focusmate team takes immediate action here and they take reports seriously.

  • Profile information
  • A very low amount of completed sessions (or none)

Can I invite friends to book sessions with me?

Yes! This feature is brand new. I haven’t used it yet, but from what I understand, you book sessions on the calendar. You send the friend link to your friend who is also registered on Focusmate, who can then book those slots with you. These slots will be locked.

Browser Extensions to use with Focusmate

Final words

I’ve been writing this piece during several Focusmate sessions. Without a tool such as this, the amount of work I’d get done would not even compare. It would be laughable. As a matter of fact, I’ve been writing every single piece I ever published on Medium since last year during one or more Focusmate sessions.

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Gracia Kleijnen

Written by

Writing my way to progress. Topics: personal growth, life lessons, tooling & (failed) ventures.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Gracia Kleijnen

Written by

Writing my way to progress. Topics: personal growth, life lessons, tooling & (failed) ventures.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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