What to Know About the ‘Body Doubling’ Trend That’s Keeping People with ADHD on Task
DeAna McEwen’s ADHD nearly cost her company $50,000 and her job. McEwen, a marketing administrator in Chicago, couldn’t focus to complete basic tasks. Her apartment was a hoarder-like mess of books, thrift store finds and non-perishable food items. At work, she forgot to send an invoice. When the mistake was discovered months later, the client refused to pay. The company’s CEO had to wrangle the money. The whole company knew the ordeal started with McEwen.
“I was reprimanded,” she says, “but I was trying to figure out why I was making so many mistakes.” She saw a therapist and was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
As she started working from home during the pandemic, McEwen has utilized a tactic known in ADHD circles as body doubling. Body doubling uses another person’s presence to help keep people with ADHD on task.
The body double creates light social pressure to achieve a goal. “It’s the good side of social pressure,” says Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in West Chester, Pennsylvania, specializing in ADHD. “If somebody else is in the room, there’s a little bit of social pressure to use your time well.”
Plus the body double’s presence becomes a self-reinforcing reminder for an easily distracted mind. Why is that person there? Because they were invited to help complete a task, so better get back that to that task. McEwen explains how it worked for her: ““I come to my mom’s house and work while she’s doing something else,” she said. “Although she’s not standing over me — she’s doing whatever she’s doing — that anchoring presence helps me stay focused.”
It’s possible it works by engaging the brain in a useful way. Areas of the brain involved in planning and time management, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, “are probably heightened when one knows that there is an individual watching, where there’s an expectation is raised,” says Julie Schweitzer, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist at the University of California, Davis specializing in ADHD.
The kind of positive socializing that body doubling uses may also affect brain chemistry. “If you, with your body double, talk about accomplishing that goal, then that you could also get some sort of social reward for that,” explains Schweitzer. A positive circular process could ensue where the body double bolsters executive function and concentration, the socialization and feelings of accomplishment release dopamine—the brain’s pleasure-inducing reward chemical—and that helps the person hone their aptitude for the task of the day.
Schweitzer says that when she first heard of “body doubling” it reminded her of a partner system used to help graduate students keep up their writing output. From workout buddies to creative workshops to Alcoholics Anonymous, the idea of relying on another person for accountability is certainly not exclusive to ADHD.
Here are other key points to know about it:
Body doubling can be used for all kinds of tasks
Body doubling can be used for “anything that is not interesting enough for the person to be motivated to do it themselves,” said Tuckman. “It could be something like sitting completing paperwork or it could be something like cleaning up the kitchen.”
McEwen says she first employed body doubling to organize her long-neglected apartment. Her boyfriend, who she had shuttered out of the place for four years due to embarrassment, offered to come over and help. “But I get overwhelmed when people ask me, ‘Oh, where does this go?’” Her mind just shuts down. Now, she just asks people to sit while she cleans or talks on the phone “and I have made so many strides at home.”
Body doubling should have structure
Body doubling works better with more structure, specific goal-setting and reassessment, says Schweitzer, or it could devolve into mere social time. “I think people need to be really, really clear what the expectations are if it’s going to work,” she said, “and just be reasonable in terms of thinking what their goals are.”
She recommends at least five minutes of discussion ahead of the body doubling session to go over plans, goals and progress made, plus a wrap-up after the session. It is helpful to plan with your body double the number of sessions you will have and schedule them. Schweitzer even suggests a signed written agreement about the goals of body doubling.
Body doubling is better if it’s a peer
McEwen lives with a teenage daughter. Sometimes when she asks for a body double, “people are like, ‘Oh, well, your daughter’s there.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, but she triggers me in ways I can’t explain. She doesn’t cause me to feel calm.” Part of the problem is the daughter is, in a way, a task. McEwen is responsible for her, so her company will never be the light, passive presence needed for body doubling.
Schweitzer says one should select as a body double someone who elicits a degree of ease. “I think there needs to be some really careful thought about who a body double might be,” she says. “I think people really need to consider whether the person is working well for them, and it needs to be somebody that they’re comfortable enough to be honest with them.”
Body doubling situations can ruin a friendship if the double is too critical or puts too much energy into calling out their friend for not staying on task. Parents and children rarely make good body doubles for one another. This is one reason children with ADHD do better with tutors. Sometimes the tutor has an effect similar to that of a body double, which is possible because the tension of a parental relationship is not present.
Body doubling can be done online
The makers of the podcast ADHD ReWired also maintain a 24/7 Zoom room called Adult Study Hall, where people can body double online at any time.
Body doubling hasn’t been tested yet
Body doubling is a semi-common practice among people with ADHD but seems to have come from peer networks and not from academic literature. Schweitzer says she doesn’t know of any clinical tests of it.
“I’m not quite sure why they named it that,” she said, “but it seems to have taken off.”
Body doubling can be overused
Tuckman says people with ADHD can get accustomed to having a body double, and once body doubling is no longer a specialized appointment to get some real work done, they can fall back into old habits of distraction and procrastination. “Obviously, novelty runs its course,” he says. “So it might be more helpful the first few times and less helpful after that.” He recommends not overusing the system and perhaps saving body doubling for the most important tasks, “something like sorting receipts for taxes or, you know, the big monthly report for work, something like that, that you really need to get done.”
He adds, “If you need a body double to get done too many things, probably you need to address that [problem] in some other, more effective ways.”
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