Body Doubling as a Motivational Proxy

August 31, 2022


If you've only got a few minutes, here are the blog highlights.

  • Body doubling is a technique within the ADHD communitiy used to accomplish tasks by performing those tasks in the presence of another.
  • When you agree to perform a specific task with another at a designated time, a friendly agreement is created. Because we do not want to break that agreement, it seems to act as a proxy for our motivation and we perform the task.
  • We are building Double for people to connect with a body double any time for any task.

Trash and tribulations

I learned I had ADHD at 26.

With that diagnosis came a new understanding of why I experienced things the way I did - in particular, my experience of everyday tasks appearing to be insurmountable.

I’m talking regularly forgetting to take out the trash, dishes piling up, “doom piles” of clothing around my room, never making returns because I kept pushing off bringing them to FedEx, etc.

It was bad.

However, when I discovered this concept called “body doubling” - it was a game changer. “Body doubling” is a practice that has recently come into popularity within the ADHD community that entails having someone nearby while you complete tasks. They can either play an active or a passive role, but their presence alone is usually enough.

That’s really it. Do things with others around.

Here are a few examples of body doubling you might have done before without knowing about body doubling:

  • Running with a friend
  • Going to coffeeshops to work around others
  • Cleaning the house with roommates
  • Pair programming

In my own life, I found that activities I stick with are the ones where I am with somebody else or accountable to them.

For instance, I recently started running again and just finished the Couch To 5k (C25K) program (a program that gets you running a 5k in 8 weeks) for the first time. I have attempted to complete the program multiple times before, but only seemed to get to about week 6 or 7 before I fall out of a habit.

The difference this time was that somebody was running with me. Seeing them run alongside me for every run in the 8 week period helped maintain my motivation to continue running.

However, I still did not have a good understanding as to why this worked — what was it about having someone around that made these tasks easier to perform?

Body doubling and behavior design

As I continued to learn more about body doubling as a way to unlock motivation, I was drawn back to a book I read at the start of the pandemic called “Tiny Habits”. [1]

In this book, the author, Dr. Fogg, describes behavior as being modeled by the equation B=MAP, where behavior (B) is a product of motivation (M), ability (A), and a prompt (P). [2]

If someone possesses the ability to perform a behavior, but has little to no motivation, then the behavior will most likely not be performed. Similarly, if the motivation is present, but the ability is not, then the outcome will be similar and the behavior will not be performed, even with a great prompt.

Tying this back to body doubling, the tasks I struggle with are usually well within my ability to perform - I’ve done laundry countless times, same with dishes and returns. Sure, I've been busy here and there, but looking back, it wasn't so busy that I couldn't take 10 minutes. So, I concluded it wasn’t my inability to perform the tasks, but rather the struggle with tasks stemmed from my motivation.

Based upon my experience, I believe body doubling works because it acts as a motivational proxy (that’s at least what I’m calling it). By agreeing to perform a specific task with someone at a designated time, I create a friendly agreement with that person and I am motivated to not break that agreement.

Here's a quick example to demonstrate this idea of a motivational proxy:

  1. Identify the task: I need to do laundry.
  2. Set a time: I ask a friend if they are free at 2 to body double with me.
  3. Create the friendly agreement: They say sure and we agree that at 2 we will both be online to body double.
  4. Use the agreement as a motivational proxy: At 2, I am prompted that my friend will be online. Because I agreed to be on at the same time, and do not want to keep them waiting, I am motivated to also go online and begin my task.

There's one critical point I've glossed over, which is: what if there's not someone around to body double with?

Double up

We originally developed Double to solve our own problem of not always having someone around to body double with. We hope that there are others out there that can find Double useful and can help them accomplish their tasks.

While building Double, we are using Double. My cofounder, Nicholas, and I regularly use it to work on bug fixes that we've pushed off, as well as schedule some time for us to practice our instruments (him on cello and me on violin).

As we've developed it, we have learned that quite a lot of folks want to use Double just to have someone around while they do a task, not necessarily for motivation at all - and we think that's amazing.

Double can be what you make it - a productivity tool, a get back to baseline tool, an exercise accountability buddy, an "ugh, I've put this off long enough" tool.

Whether or not you want to give Double a try, I do highly recommend trying body doubling with someone in the future. It's a great tool to have and might surprise you how effective it is.