It’s the start of pandemic in North America (March, April, May? Who the heck knows because the days seem to be blurring together). I’m sitting at my computer in my bedroom office trying to coax myself into writing something — anything — that isn’t for one of my regular clients.
With upcoming work travel plans on hold indefinitely and more time on my hands, I tell myself that should be able to finally buckle down and finish the book I’ve been writing (on and off) for the past few years. But every time I sit down to do the hard thing, my brain feels too foggy.
I’m temporarily soothed by articles and inspirational Instagram posts that remind me that it’s normal to have problems focusing during a pandemic (we’re all just trying to stay alive!) And yet, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m a loser and a failure.
(Did I mention I can be a jerk to myself sometimes?)
I mean, people are out there creating albums and launching super cool side projects right now. I’m not making the most of my time! I should be creating! I don’t have the excuse of not having time! What the fuck is wrong with me?
(In other words, if you consistently find yourself sitting down to do work only to be distracted by similar thoughts paired with doom scrolling, a Pinterest addiction and places like JackpotCity online casino, then this post is for you)
When people ask me what I miss most about my pre-Covid life, my answer usually surprises them (hint: it’s not travelling — I’m tired and my body is a mess — more on that later). Instead, I yearn for the long writing sessions that I used to regularly enjoy at a handful of local coffee shops.
As a self-employed person for 10+ years, I like to think I’m pretty good at getting stuff done while working from home. With that being said, when it comes to the big, important stuff — things that clients aren’t paying me to do — like writing a book or penning emotionally vulnerable blog posts, I’ve always found it easier to do this kind of work outside of my home.
I was the same way in university. I did nearly all of my homework at the library and when it came time to write papers, I opted to do my work in the computer lab (even though I had a PC at home). When I walked through the doors, I knew that I could (mild human distractions aside) focus and get stuff done. In my post-grad life, the coffee shop filled a similar role, as an almost sacred place for writing. When the pandemic hit, it felt like I’d been kicked out of the flock.
My local coffee shop scene looks like a weird mash-up of a Portlandia episode and the movie Cocoon. It’s a motley crew of stereotypical hipsters armed with sticker-covered Macbooks and Moleskines, patchouli scented didgeridoo carrying white guys with badly maintained dreadlocks and octogenarians who insist on watching YouTube videos on their iPads at max volume without headphones. It’s noisy and a little smelly, but it’s this exact blend human chaotic energy (cue: a Glass Animals album playing in the background) that has allowed me to zero in and focus long enough to write the first two drafts of my 250+ page book.
Unable to shake my brain fog and struggling to get anything beyond the bare minimum done, I started locking my phone in my bathroom cabinet for hour long sessions.
While being without my phone definitely helped me get stuff done without the constant temptation of scrolling through Instagram or falling into an eBay/Etsy black hole in search of the perfect pair of tiny cowboy boots for Joe the Intern, sitting alone at my computer in my quiet bedroom turned office lacked the just-chaotic-enough “backstage at the Muppet Theatre” vibes that my coffee shop consistently delivered.
I’ve learned that I do best work when I’m in the presence of other people doing work. I also crave accountability.
Then, through what can only be described as serendipity, I discovered the two words that would change everything:
Two months ago, I started co-working with strangers on the internet and it’s been life altering.
The process is as follows:
Log onto the platform. Schedule a co-working session. Get matched with a partner or a group (depending on the platform). Join the video conference and introduce yourself. Share your goals for what you hope to accomplish during the session. Work silently on Zoom together for 1-3 hours before checking in at the end to see how things went.
If you’d told me a year ago that I would be paying a service to work quietly with strangers on Zoom, I would have rolled my eyes — but oh my god, that tiny bit of accountability and human contact works wonders for my workflow.
To be productive, I need other humans close by and I need a place to go — even if it’s virtual.
If you’re wondering where to find virtual co-working online, I currently use two different virtual co-working platforms that I love equally for different reasons.
Focusmate is a one-on-one virtual co-working space where you can schedule 50 minute video conference sessions with a virtual coworker. The goal is to hold each other accountable and keep each other company. I use this one for doing all of my task oriented client work — writing articles, scheduling social media, answering emails. It’s been a huge help in focusing on key tasks and limiting distractions. I’ll frequently book multiple sessions in a day — especially if I have a lot to get done.
Caveday is a group virtual co-working space that’s designed for deep, focused work. Sessions are longer (1-3 hours) and lead by a guide who keeps them upbeat, relaxed and motivational. There’s also a little more interaction and sharing, which is nice. I love using Caveday for creative, personal writing.
Why pay for two separate memberships, you ask? Well, for me it’s crucial to create different spaces for different kinds of work. Similar to walking through the library or coffee shop doors, when I log onto Caveday, I automatically associate it with working on book related tasks — and nothing else.
I’m somewhat of a perfectionist and could easily spend all day tinkering at one piece of writing. Scheduling virtual co-working sessions has allowed me to be more mindful of how I spend my time, so I can work smarter not harder (I’m on a virtual co-working sesh as I write this!)
It’s also helped calm down the negative self-talk (that I’m an unproductive failure, incapable of writing) because I know if I show up, I’ll at least get something done that I can feel good about.
Also, I think it’s important to note that whatever you’re feeling — too tender, scattered or angry to focus — is totally legitimate. This isn’t a solve everything cure.
But if you’re looking for ways to add more structure to your days or simply need a push to get over procrastination, I highly recommend giving virtual co-working a try.
Even Joe the Intern is a fan of our virtual co-working sessions.
By the way, you might be wondering why I decided to use a photo of me on the beach for a post about productivity during the pandemic.
Craving extra accountability, about a month ago I joined a Cave Squad through Caveday. You can read more about it here but basically it’s a supportive accountability group where you can set and track goals.
In August, our team leader encouraged us to also add some fun goals to our list. One of mine was “walk down to the beach after work and enjoy a canned cocktail.” The photo above is me doing exactly that. I only stayed at the beach for about an hour — just long enough to enjoy a drink and take a photo — but it felt good.
I look at that photo as a reminder that even when the world is going nuts, it’s still possible to carve out time — to do the hard things, but also the stuff that brings you pleasure. If you’re lucky, sometimes the two overlap.
Has anyone else been struggling with concentration lately? What’s helped you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.