Can This Online Productivity App Help Reduce Depression?

My experience with virtual co-working eased my depression.

Posted Sep 04, 2019

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I’ve been talking to strangers from foreign countries online. Wait. It’s not what you think. 

They have prevented me from falling into depression, helped me avoid perfectionism, boosted my productivity, decreased my loneliness, and reduced my procrastination

Are they therapists? Nope. One has been a journalist, a computer programmer, another a business school student. Even more surprising, we actually barely talk, and they have no idea they’ve helped me in these ways. 

So how is this happening? With a free online tool called Focusmate.1

This is going to sound strange. Bear with me. In a nutshell, you schedule a virtual on-camera co-working session with a stranger.

The app wasn’t designed as a mental health tool, but as Taylor Jacobson, Focusmate Founder and CEO, explains, "It was on our radar. Yes, it was designed with productivity in mind, but both myself and my friend who (first) tried this out have had mental health journeys."

It was created to “help independent workers break free of the shame and anxiety caused by chronic procrastination…(and) connect with like-minded individuals committed to holding each other accountable… for the actions contained in those to-do lists, productivity tools, and goal trackers.”

At the first signs of depression, my head gets foggy and full, lethargy starts to seep into my body, and a feeling of isolation and dread places its foot on my chest. Perfectionism increases, as do self-critical thoughts which fuel the perfectionism which further drives avoidance.

Working productively is difficult. Working period is difficult. Focusmate unknowingly helps counter these things for me. 

Note: I am not affiliated in any way with Focusmate. I just really like the tool and thought you might too.

The Co-Working Model

It’s based on what’s called a virtual co-working model. 

What is co-working? Think back to when you were in school. Some of you may have had study buddies. This is the same thing, except we’re not 12 (or in a school library shooting spitballs through a straw).

Instead, you’re in front of your computer for 50 minutes. Camera and sound on. A concrete task to complete (usually a dreaded one) and your “study buddy” from another country set up in the exact same way. 

Whoa… you may be thinking. Me too. When I heard about this, I thought about all the ways this could go wrong. Very wrong. A video session with a complete stranger to do what together? You know where I’m going. But of the 20 and counting work meetings I’ve had, all of my workmates have been nothing but dedicated to getting their crap done. 

Jacobson has strict but friendly community guidelines. For some reason, it attracts similar people. Individuals who have work to do, who want to get it done and find it effective having someone working alongside them. 

A Typical Session 

At the start, there’s a short but friendly introduction and declaration of what task or tasks each of you will work on. I often write mine in the chatbox too. There are usually some good luck wishes exchanged, and then you’re off! 

I sometimes update the chatbox when I’ve completed a task. But there’s no other talking. 

50 minutes later, a bell chimes. You check in: “How’d it go?” The answer may be “pretty slow,” or it could be “great.” Doesn’t matter. You say goodbye. That’s it.

Strange, I know. But I can’t emphasize enough how good this is for both my mental health and my productivity.

My Interview With the Founder of Focusmate, Taylor Jacobson

I interviewed Taylor to hear from him how he would describe the sessions and the potential, though unintended, mental health benefits.

Mental Health Benefits I’ve Experienced

1. Combating Lethargy and No Energy

The 50-minute length is long enough for me to get something done, but not so long that I start to tire. 

2. Reducing Isolation and Loneliness

Working alongside a "live" person reminds me that I’m not alone in our oh so very virtual world. The sessions aren’t for conversations, but the quick exchange of words at the start and the end of the call adds an encouraging human touch to the strong sense of isolation that creeps in when I’m beginning to feel depressed.

Social contact has long been known to help alleviate depressive symptoms. See the research at the end of this article.

3. Keeps Me Moving and out of Bed (Not to Mention Dressed and Showered)

This may seem small—but in depression, getting out of bed and having a shower can feel monumental. Having committed to a specific time and to another person, I don’t want to let them down.

The scheduled sessions motivate me to get up, get clean, and honor my word. It’s only 50 minutes. I can show up for that and go back to bed if I want. But I haven’t yet. 

Note: It’s amazing—there’s no pressure to look marvelous or have awesome video quality. The objective is to show up and get one task done.

4. Teaches Me Realistic Goal Setting and Sets Me up for Success

That brings me to the next reason I like Focusmate. It helps me set realistic goals and experience success. I’ve got 50 minutes. What task can I do in that time frame? 

In order to create a little sense of success and help my lagging self-esteem, I aim to accomplish one or two very small tasks. When I accomplish them, I get evidence that counters all my negative self-talk.

I go deeper into much of this, like realistic goal setting and strategies for a balanced life and mind, in my workshop Creating Wellness and Reclaiming Self-Care.

Some Science Behind My Experience

According to an article in Medium, Patricia Arean, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Washington says: “People with major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder can find it difficult to motivate themselves because of what researchers call ‘cognitive burden,’ when your brain is overloaded with distracting thoughts.” 2

I see this tool as a protective factor in preventing depression. Choosing to get up, keep my word, and have a work session when I’d rather crawl back into bed is part of a DBT strategy called "the power of opposite action." You take steps in the opposite direction that your depression is telling you to go.

Despite your low mood, you still get on with your life and don’t let depression run your life. It’s a technique to help you change how you feel. 3

Research has shown consistently depressive symptoms can be alleviated by interventions that increase social support and contact. 4,5 

Some Precautions 

I suggest this is for those who noticed the warning signs of depression or mild depression. If you’re in major depression, this tool, I believe, wouldn’t be as helpful and could potentially backfire.

Research Is Needed

I have only my experience to go from and anecdotal experience from other users. Focused research needs to take place (sorry no pun intended) to determine if this is indeed true. 

Productive and Possibly Preventative

Focusmate can help us be more productive. But it may also alleviate mild depressive symptoms, act as a protective factor preventing depression from occurring at all, prevent relapse, and improve our overall mental well-being. 

Whether you work at home or in an office, it could be a great asset. By increasing social contact, creating experiences of small achievements, and using the power of opposite action as described in DBT, Focusmate might be not just a productivity hack, but a recovery hack to add to our wellness toolbox.

© Victoria Maxwell

References

Shout out to Marie Poulin of Oki Doki, who introduced me to this fab tool.

Opposite Action – Marsha M. Linehan