One of the biggest challenges with academic writing isn’t necessarily the writing itself, it’s actually keeping ourselves in the chair. As soon as we hit a tricky part, there’s an overwhelming urge to wander off and tackle an easier task. We tell ourselves, “This is far too difficult today. I’ll come back tomorrow and it’ll definitely be easier.” Unless we push through those tricky parts, though, it’s impossible to make significant progress. The solution is to either get some velcro pants or to use Focusmate.
Focusmate is an online tool that matches you with a stranger so you can watch each other write. Yes, it does sound a bit creepy, but it’s actually highly effective. You choose a 50-minute slot through the online calendar, then click on the link to hook up with your partner. You have a brief chat at the beginning to introduce yourself and explain what you’re going to work on. Then you get writing. Your webcam must stay on, but you can decide whether or not to mute yourself. Some users like to hear the other person, while others are distracted by slurping, coughing, and creaking. At the end, you have another brief chat to share what you’ve achieved.
The main reason why Focusmate works is accountability. You make a commitment to another person when booking your slot, which means you’re more likely to turn up. If we just make a commitment to ourselves, there’s a tendency to let something else take priority. Although people do sometimes play truant on Focusmate, they receive a stern email and repeat offenders are banished. The webcam ensures we stay in our chairs and keep going, even when it’s a struggle. Of course, your partner won’t know if you’re faffing about on Twitter, but you’d probably look a bit shifty during the final chat.
Unfortunately, Focusmate didn’t yet exist when I was doing my PhD. However, I’ve used it extensively since then to work on book projects. Every so often, I decide that I no longer need it, I can trust myself to get on with writing alone, but then my productivity plummets. I need to be under surveillance. Otherwise, everything else takes priority and writing consistently ends up at the bottom of my todo list. Now I start nearly every day with two sessions. Not only do I produce a lot of words, I also meet people around the world – most of them PhD students – and hear about their projects.
I’ve recommended Focusmate to many PhD students and for some of them it’s been transformative. They’ve gone from writing nothing to squeezing out several thousand words each day. One PhD student, Safi, told me he’d worked out an optimal Focusmate schedule. He knew exactly how many sessions to complete in a day to maximise productivity and avoid burnout, and had also developed some rituals for recuperating afterwards. Like any tool, you have to adapt it to suit your circumstances and preferences.
Although Focusmate mainly attracts writers, members are allowed to use the sessions for almost any activity. In the early days, I got a couple of partners who were cooking, meditating, and even cleaning their teeth. To ensure compatibility, you can check the profile of prospective partners before booking your session. There’s also a PhD Focusmate Community. If you’re accepted, the booking system tries to match you with someone else in the group first. You can also set up your own group. This costs extra, but it might be something your university would consider funding.
Speaking of money, you get three free Focusmate sessions a week. For unlimited usage, it costs $5 per month. This is extraordinarily good value if you use it every day. It’s certainly not for everyone. If you don’t like the idea of writing with strangers, perhaps you could use Zoom with a friend instead. The important part is accountability. Make sure that you commit to regular slots and don’t use friendship as an excuse to wriggle out of writing. You need to stay in that chair.
Perhaps I’ll see you on Focusmate.