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When Chloe Tomalin is absorbed in her work, she sings to herself. She twiddles her hair. She can forget that, these days, she has an international audience.
“I am so concerned that I am going to press a button and 30 people are going to have a picture of me singing in the corner of their screen,” she says.
Tomalin, a freelance marketer, is a member of Caveday – a startup that claims to help you achieve meaningful work through facilitated “deep focus” sessions on Zoom. You sign up for a one- or three-hour session, share what you intend to achieve in the time with the group of strangers, then get stuck in: cameras on, mics muted.
After a “sprint” of 50-odd minutes (suggested to be optimum for maintaining focus in a 2014 analysis by the productivity tracker DeskTime), your “Cave guide” calls you back to the Zoom for a progress check and some stretches. Otherwise, you might not even keep the window visible – just the knowledge of others’ presence helps to hold you accountable. Some people report being two or three times more productive. For this, they pay $20 a session, or $40 per month for membership to the “world’s most focused community”.
Since joining in September, Tomalin has structured her workday into two sessions. “I find it helps the flow of my day go so much better. There’s none of that sitting down at your desk and going ‘What shall I do?’” Her flatmates working alongside her have come to recognise when she is “in the Cave”. “They think it’s a really strange concept,” she says. “But I’m the most productive of all of us.”
Caveday is just one of a number of remote coworking startups to have taken off since the pandemic. Focusmate is freemium and on-demand, letting users team up for an hour of one-to-one working. Ultraworking’s Work Gym structures work into 30-minute “cycles”, structured with spreadsheets. The Order In Club, seeking to channel “how nice it was to see people in person”, suggests an “accountabilibuddy”.
Though the work issues they have identified vary – loneliness, low-productivity, procrastination to problems prioritising tasks – they go about solving them largely the same way: with structure and social accountability. The parallel often given is group exercise. “You could do a workout at home,” says Jake Kahana, one of Caveday’s three cofounders. “But sometimes it’s helpful to get a trainer.”
The services mostly appeal to professionals working remotely, often in creative or tech fields, seeking to manage a high volume of work or make headway towards an ambitious goal. Kahana says “Cavedwellers” are united not so much by being high achievers, but by their desire to push themselves as part of a team. “There’s that implicit competition that comes from being in a community. In a good way.”
Caveday began as a one-off event in Manhattan in January 2017 – a distraction-free day to “get stuff done”. It was pitched as a chance to make a start on longer-term projects, like creating a side business or writing a novel, that are easy to put off. Fast Company described the concept as “procrastination nannies”.
There was so much enthusiasm it became a business. By the start of 2020, Caveday was holding five sessions a week in person and three over Zoom. When the pandemic hit, it made its entire business remote – and interest skyrocketed.
Kahana won’t give membership figures but says the company has grown eightfold since February, taking into account membership, weekly attendance, average Cave size and revenue. Caveday now holds 38 sessions a week, with those in US time zones routinely reaching close to 100 people.
For Tomalin, Caveday’s social element – if only coming to recognise familiar faces, and making small talk in the breakout rooms between sprints – has helped to plug the gap left left by work events during the pandemic. Rituals like the group clap that mark the start of each Cave took some time to get used to, but “2020 has made everybody less self-conscious,” she says. “Like – does it really matter if a bunch of people are watching me doing stretches in my PJs?”
In the world of online productivity, embarrassment is a distraction. “Multi-tasking is a myth,” says Drew, an artist in Colorado, at the start of a three-hour night-time Cave. After each sprint he encourages the global group of 63 to “take a bio-break” or do some breathing exercises – and then, at the end of the session, to high-five the Cavedwellers either side of them in the grid.
Focusmate founder and CEO Taylor Jacobson says use of his service has quadrupled this year as the pandemic exacerbated the loneliness inherent to remote working, with 111,000 sessions completed in November and 60,000 sign-ups to date. (Jacobson, too, refuses to give revenue or growth figures.)
Focusmate was born out of Jacobson’s own chronic struggle with procrastination, and the “life-changing” effect of keeping a video call open with a friend while he worked. He says it recognises our innate need for a tribe, harnessing the effects of a positive social interaction on the nervous system to improve happiness and performance. “We compare ourselves to machines – we say, ‘I’m just going to crank this out’ – but we’re not built that way at all. If we start to think of ourselves as wired for socialising, we can use that to really just help us be our best.”
Working with one other person on Focusmate – which is more intimate than Caveday, and much cheaper – is similar to the ambient camaraderie of a freelancer-friendly cafe. Steve Lane used the service regularly early this year, while he was self-employed and working from home through lockdown. “It was a godsend for mental health reasons to prevent isolation, and as an ADHD sufferer it really helps to overcome the symptoms.”
But beyond the social element, these services work by focusing your mind on what is possible within an hour, or three. Simply demarking units of time sharpen your grasp on how long tasks actually take, which quickly translates to a sense of control.
The idea is that over time focus will become habitual, helping you to prioritise “important over urgent” work. But it sits somewhat at odds with Caveday’s other promise to get more work done in less time. It highlights the obvious tension in Caveday and Focusmate positioning themselves as a reprieve from hustle culture, a means of resisting “the productivity trap” – while also promising to make you more productive.
Ella Hafermalz, assistant professor at the KIN Centre for Digital Innovation, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and an expert in remote working, says the persistent framing of procrastination as a personal failing over the past decade has led us to relate to ourselves as a manager might a worker.
To her, the rise in remote coworking startups demonstrates how “we’ve internalised that dynamic to the point where we have to enforce it with surveillance”.
The drive to achieve can also lead us to adopt goals we do not feel intrinsically motivated to do. Bruce Daisley, host of the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast recalls a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, where Calvin creates a clone of himself to dedicate to doing his homework. “Forget it, bub,” his clone scoffs.
“We create these lists that we want the ‘good’ version of us to want to do, then we don’t want to do them,” says Daisley. Structure, “social proof” and guilt are proven effective motivators – but they can only go so far.
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