postcard from Focusmate

I should write about Focusmate, I kept thinking. I sat down to dutifully write about its business model and potential future direction and such, and then realized… I actually just want to send you a postcard from it. What it’s like being part of this loose, distinctive community.

It’s virtual coworking: You sign up for a 50 minute coworking session and get paired with another user for a video call. You share your goals for the session, then work, then say whether you finished your goals at the end.

Once my goal was to understand triangles better, and my Focusmate partner earnestly wished me luck. What was she working on? Oh, just finalizing her astrophysics dissertation.

You can get paired with people anywhere in the world, and the time differences never stop delighting me. Like when I’m totally depleted after a long day and am greeted by someone from APAC, fresh as a daisy.

One session after dinner, I’m paired with a student in Germany who is frantic about the essay he has due at noon. He’s 2000 words short and says he’s screwed. I look up his local time and yes, he’s screwed. I had totally forgotten about that particular kind of mental math – remaining word count divided into the day’s most useless hours – and feel so grateful to have it solidly behind me.

You can choose to share your screen the whole time to make sure you don’t goof off. It seems pretty intense, and I hope to never need that feature. Once my partner, in China, was working on a presentation. When I happened to look, he was editing this wild template that looked like the set of a live news show. His actual slides were on one small “screen” in the setup, and chyrons flashed everywhere.

Someone in India was watching a lecture at 2x speed in a language I didn’t know, on a subject I likely didn’t know. I nonetheless listened a little, just in case all those adverse factors canceled each other out.

Focusmate shows you how many sessions your partner has done. I love being a tour guide whenever I see someone on their first or second ever session.

It’s cool seeing how behaviors spread. Apart from some set up instructions/FAQs, the creation and enforcement of community norms happens 1:1, session by session. I’ve noticed hacks ripple across the community, like using your display name to show if you’ll be on mute or screensharing, and sharing your personal calendar link in your profile.

There are enough users that you can book or cancel at the very last minute without bothering anyone. Only one session out of 150+ has left me without a partner.

I’ve had times where I’ve been avoiding something for days or weeks. I look my partner in the eye, pledge to finish it, and it’s vanquished by the end of the session. Social pressure works! One of those sessions feels like it’s worth $50.

Focusmate could probably raise its prices (currently $5/month for unlimited sessions), but it might jeopardize the vast horde of med students. Their sheer magnitude is the reason I can book or cancel last minute without issue.

I love getting glimpses of offices and bedrooms across dozens of countries.

The combo of seeing someone in intense focus mode, and knowing what they’re working on, is pretty rare and intimate. It’s normally just coworkers or roommates you get to see like that, and not even always.

When the 50 minutes are up, it always feels like I’ve earned the chit chat at the end.

Some people rush through the hellos and goodbyes as quickly as possible. I want to get them to breathe, tell them they can afford a few extra seconds.

It is so fun to be paired up with someone for a second time.

It’s nice that after the guaranteed moment of connection, things disappear. There’s no log of everyone you’ve ever worked with, just your last 7 days. Super different from social networks where you add someone once and they’re forever in your life until you consciously choose to stop following them.

I love having the built-in 10 minute break between sessions. Enough time to refill my tea, get my stand minutes in, mop up any snack crumbs. Then time for another desk somewhere in this vast, friendly world.