Sometimes referred to as mirroring, body doubling can be a powerful tool for neurodivergents struggling to perform various tasks. These tasks are usually, but not always, those that rely on the brain’s ability to perform executive function appropriately. Executive function is the form of functioning that relies on executive skills and concepts — such as temporal awareness, working memory, delayed gratification, the ability to tune out distractions and intentionally hold focus, and so forth.
While an individual’s personal experience with ADHD will vary depending on the root neurological and/or biological causes, struggles with executive function are nonetheless a hallmark of the disorder. In fact, multiple ADHD researchers have proposed renaming ADHD to reflect its nature as an executive function disorder over that of an attention deficit or hyperactivity one. For more information on this, see our earlier blog post on the matter here.
What is Body Doubling?
Body doubling is, loosely, the act of having another entity present with you while you perform a given task. The specifics of this can, and do, vary wildly depending on preference. For example, some people find they work better, or have an easier time holding focus, if there is another person sitting nearby to watch them perform their tasks. Others may prefer that person watch from a distance, such as via live-stream or via occasional check-ins, while others still may prefer that the person sit in the same room as them, even right next to them, but without watching them at all.
Some people prefer the simple presence of another person while they work, while others need that person to be performing a similar task alongside them. This can happen physically, such as two friends working on separate homework assignments next to each other, or it can happen virtually, such as someone putting on a video of someone cleaning their room in real time while they also clean theirs.
This method of using a prerecorded body double provides the added benefit of a concrete presentation of time. A frequent reason why ADHDers find themselves putting off something is that the time required is unknown. Without an innate concept of time, this can make the action feel as if it would take, literally, forever. Having a room-cleaning video that’s only 40 minutes long provides a solid and reassuring framework to operate in.
Additionally, some people opt to video call their friends as they all clean their rooms or homes together to merge the best of both worlds.
The body double doesn’t need to be a human or even alive. Pets are popular choices for some, and pictures, stuffed animals, and action figures are popular for others. Some people even achieve the effect by assigning a personality to a plate or a cup and then setting it up to watch them while they work.*
*This requires no shortage of imagination and will likely not work well for those adverse to role-playing.
Why Does it Work?
There are three primary components that make body doubling so powerful: accountability, solidarity, and company. Most people will tend to prefer some aspects over others, and their preference may change with circumstances.
Those who prefer the accountability element are more likely to gravitate towards having their body double actively watch them while they work, and to use that attention to motivate themselves to stay on task. Alternatively, they may call in an “accountabilibuddy” to chat with them while they work, with frequent check-ins throughout. Some messages from this buddy might look like:
“What are you working on right now?”
“Tell me when you finish with that”
“What are you moving on to next?”
Those who prefer solidarity are more likely to prefer a body double who performs a similar task alongside them. This might mean the body double is in the same room, or it might mean they’re in a video playing on a nearby laptop. Things like personal hygiene, housework, school or professional work, and desired habits and hobbies are all popular body doubling tasks in this regard.
Finally, there is the company aspect. Some people just want the presence of another being there with them to help them focus on their given task, without that being likewise performing a similar task or watching the person in question as they perform theirs. The presence of company can help provide enough stimulation to have a grounding effect, while being non-intrusive enough that focus can be maintained. This type of body doubling can be, and often is, performed by a human, but it is also the type that most easily lends itself to non-human doubles. A pet relaxing in a room someone is cleaning can make an excellent body double, for example. The same can sometimes be true for stuffed toys or portraits.
Just as no two ADHDers will experience ADHD identically, so too will no two people have completely identical preferences when it comes to body doubling. The type of body doubling required can also vary depending on the situation. Someone working on a project may want someone to watch them while they work, but then prefer a more solidarity or company-oriented body double when it comes to performing chores or other routines.
Want to explore more strategies for fostering motivation and removing barriers to challenging-to-engage-with tasks? Head over to OpenPathEducation.com and check out the ADHD: Setting Up for Success class, offered as part of the Parent Empowerment Project.