Why Virtual Co-Working Works So Well for High Achievers With ADHD
Co-working is designed to give professionals a shared office-like setting to work – any space in which two or more people come together virtually or in person to engage in separate work projects.
Though virtual co-working skyrocketed during the COVID-19 crisis, you might be surprised to learn that it was pretty popular (and effective) for folks with ADHD long before the pandemic hit. And there's a reason for that. Virtual co-working has the 4 key ingredients that help make people with ADHD successful: connection, accountability, focus, and the oh-so-important structure.
I've been a big fan of virtual co-working for a long time, both for myself and my clients. And while I wanted to share the reasons behind why co-working can be a game-changer in terms of productivity, I also wanted to share what my high achieving clients with ADHD have to say about why co-working works for them. So, I asked them to share their experiences with co-working to share them here with you.
Connection, Accountability, and Focus
As human beings, we are naturally social creatures (especially when ADHD is factored in). We weren't meant to sit isolated in a room (or a cubicle) staring at a computer screen by ourselves all day. Our brains are wired for connection, and our productivity can drop if we are alone too long.
When we connect with someone else virtually or in person, we get a hefty dopamine hit. This means that your brain releases dopamine during a virtual co-working session when you see your co-workers on the screen. This dopamine hit elevates your mood, increases your motivation, and gives your executive functions an energy boost. As one of my clients said about co-working, "I love the dopamine boost of seeing friends – it immediately gets me out of my usual end-of-day self-pity exhaustion spiral." Another client said that the connection he gets during co-working is an "incentive to make progress by the time the session ends." For him, the incentive is the brief contact he has with others during co-working.
Connection with another person through virtual co-working leads to another key ingredient that helps people with ADHD increase their productivity and ability to get work done – accountability.
Co-working usually doesn't happen at a moment's notice – you have to plan for it, schedule it with someone else, and decide what you will work on ahead of time. By scheduling a co-working session in advance, you're helping your brain get prepared to dive into the task you've decided to work on during the co-working session. You're telling your brain, "Okay, at this time, we are going to do this task." You're also telling someone else, "Okay, I will be there at this time to meet with you and work." These are the first layers of accountability in virtual co-working. You can tell by this quote from a client how valuable this accountability factor is in virtual co-working... "I know it's coming – my brain starts gearing up for it. And, because it's a regular practice, even if my brain feels like I cannot do a thing, I somehow am able to drop right into my work and get stuff done."
In the world of virtual co-working, it's best practice to start and finish the co-working session with a check-in so everybody can share what they're working on and the progress they made. So often, the ADHD brain can pull your focus in a hundred different directions and down a rabbit hole (sometimes at the same time). By checking in with a friend or colleague at the start of your virtual co-working session, you're externalizing your commitment to stay on track and focus. Telling someone else what you plan to do is an additional layer of accountability built into the virtual co-working process.
Another client I work with shared a prime example of this when she talked about why co-working works so well. She said, "It keeps me on track – I don't go off track and do other things because I've committed to doing one specific thing. I feel a sort of 'obligation' to do what I committed to do to the other person."
To share another example, you can see from this story from a client how well these accountability layers work for her. She says the following about virtual co-working,
"If I block an hour on my calendar to do X without co-working, I rarely abide by that time block. Instead, I usually tell myself I don't have time to switch to task X right now or tell myself I'll do it later. I carry on with doing whatever I was doing or continue to just bounce around, responding immediately to whatever emails or calls come my way. With co-working on my schedule, however, I more often honor that time block. And when I do join a [virtual] co-working session, it's like I have blinders on. I hardly look at my emails and I just end up hyper-focusing on a task for the 45+ minutes. It's great!"
(For more helpful tips on accountability not related to virtual co-working, check out this article How to Boost Accountability and Get Stuff Done).
Structure Your Time, Structure Your Mind
People with ADHD often struggle with transitions and lack of structure. A virtual co-working session offers more structure than working alone because it has a specific start time and usually a specific end time. These start/stop times put a container around your work that acts as a "starting line" and "finish line" in a sense, which can help people with ADHD transition into and out of a specific task.
How many times have you tried to start an important task for work, only to stare idly at your computer screen, waiting for inspiration to come? Usually, people struggle to get going on a particular task because they don't allow for transition time. One client explained this dynamic about virtual co-working and transitions beautifully when he said, "Transitions are a huge struggle, and the simple process of logging on and saying hello is enough of a disruption to what I was doing to allow me to transition into what I planned to do during that time."
The structure of virtual co-working also provides helpful cues to your brain that it's time to start working on a specific task. Even if you've been working all day, the acts of opening up the virtual platform, logging in, greeting your partner, and checking in are cues that tell your brain that it's time to work on the task at hand. As another client of mine mentioned about co-working, "I know co-working works for me because I have managed to show up every day at 5:00 pm to write and even though I rarely want to do so, I end up finishing difficult tasks during that time. I have written a substantial amount this past year, thanks especially to co-writing regularly."
Externalize the Sh!t Out of Your Work
In my coaching courses, I teach a 4-Step Performance Model that helps high achievers with ADHD harness their ADHD symptoms to leverage their natural gifts and talents. One of the steps in this model is externalizing. For all the reasons mentioned above, and then some, virtual co-working is a high-impact externalization tool. Here's an example of what I mean:
When you schedule a virtual co-working session, you will most likely set a meeting time in your calendar. Your calendar appointment will have at least one reminder and possibly more. You'll see the virtual co-working session in your calendar as an appointment whenever you look at that day or week (depending on your calendar settings). All of these serve as external reminders to get you in the mindset to turn your attention toward the task or project you said you would work on and focus on the task at hand.
Make Virtual Co-Working Work for You
There are different ways to engage with virtual co-working. Do you want to work virtually in a group setting or one-on-one with a partner? Do you prefer shorter chunks of time, like an hour, or longer blocks like 2-3 hours? Do you need to co-work at the same time of day each time, or can you vary the time you meet?
I can appreciate that everybody needs to figure out what makes virtual co-working "work" for them, but I also want to share a few simple tips that I know can help make for a more effective session:
Make sure you add your virtual co-working sessions to your calendar so you can make the most of the reminders and externalization factor.
Decide ahead of time what you will work on – write it down or add it to the calendar appointment to help you remember (further externalizations).
Build virtual co-working into your daily or weekly schedule and plan regular sessions with people – I recommend three times per week if you can. Regular, predictable co-working sessions can help give you structure.
Test out different chunks of time to figure out what works best for you. But, if you're going to virtually co-work for longer than an hour, schedule breaks into the session, so you don't go too long without a brain break.
Try FocusMate, an online program that offers live, virtual co-working sessions with other FocusMate members. There is a free and paid version you can try. (And if you've participated in any of my individual or group coaching programs before, you can join The Focused Hour, my private group in FocusMate).
As you can see, I'm a big proponent of virtual co-working. I believe in it so strongly that I've made it an essential component of both of my group coaching programs – The Focused Lawyer and Performance Powerhouse.
But don't let my research and experience convince you. Take it from a quote that one of my clients shared about the impact virtual co-working has made in his life to see the real value in the process... "I know it is effective simply by the amount of work I get done using it. It is effective also in that I get so much of a boost that it carries over to my work after the session has ended."
*Check out more work-from-home resources with my article, 3 ADHD-Friendly Tips to Effectively Work from Home and How to ADHD and Work From Home.