Burnt out? Try joining a 2-hour Zoom call with strangers

Amid the pandemic, numerous horror stories circulated about bosses watching their employees’ every move through constant Zoom surveillance during the workday. 

Although being monitored by video call at work may sound like a nightmare to some, for others, the method has proven to be an extremely effective way to get things done. 

This is the basic idea behind Anna Pugh’s startup, Spacetime Monotasking

Monotasking is exactly what it sounds like — working on a single idea, task or project for a clearly defined amount of time. As an added layer of accountability, the company encourages users to monotask while sharing a Zoom call with four to 12 strangers at a time.  

Of course, in this more ideal case, keeping your camera on is completely optional, and none of these strangers is your manager. 

After almost a decade of building other startups, Pugh knows a good business idea when she sees one. It was simply a bonus that monotasking worked very well for her.

“I’m at home. I’m alone. I’m trying to figure out how to accomplish things,” Pugh told In The Know. “I was so scattered. And I was so burned out. And I was thinking about work all day rather than actually doing my work.”

Spacetime Monotasking operates as a virtual coworking space targeted specifically to creators and entrepreneurs, but it’s really open to anyone who needs help holding themselves accountable. Pugh will facilitate “sprints” via Zoom throughout the day that people can register for. In these sessions, participants close themselves off from everything except for the task they want to accomplish and their monotasking partners. 

The whole process is the opposite of multitasking, which used to be the gold standard in job interviews but has been attributed to burnout and less productivity in recent years.

“We have a schedule of events on our website, and our members are able to book these sprints in advance. So they know coming into it if they’re doing a one-hour sprint or a two-hour sprint,” Pugh explained. “Once everybody arrives, we do a quick intention setting. So usually, we go into breakout rooms and have everybody check in on how they plan to use the time.”

“The clearer we are about what our expectations are of ourselves, the more likely we are to accomplish whatever it is we’re going into,” she added.

Sprints can be used in whatever way each individual wants. Pugh has seen people use the time to do a load of laundry they’ve procrastinated or pack for an upcoming trip. Sometimes, she’ll even use a sprint to paint.

But most people, like Spacetime Monotasking co-founder Marisa Jo, are freelancers or self-employed people who love having the “gentle pressure” of having to follow up with a group after an hour or two. Jo told In The Know she likes to work based on when she gets bursts of energy, which means that while her work hours aren’t a traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., she still feels like she gets more done day-to-day than she ever did at a corporate job.

“You intentionally create this time,” Jo said. “Even when I worked for somebody else, it was like I was just at the mercy of who called me in that moment, of who was emailing me right then and there, of who stopped by my desk.” 

According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, there’s evidence that “on average, people are checking emails 74 times a day, switching tasks every 10 minutes.” Grant referred to this as “time confetti,” or shredding moments into “tiny, useless pieces” by focusing on too many things at once, resulting in failure or more stress. 

“After five hours in the office or five hours in my home office, it’s like, wow, I actually haven’t gotten anything done,” Jo continued. “And it’s just because your energy is scattered around.”

“From a neurological standpoint, when you’re multitasking, you’re basically just draining your brain’s capacity to complete tasks because you’re switching so quickly,” Pugh agreed. 

“Time confetti” and scattered energy also sound very similar to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

ADHD affects between 5 and 8% of the global population, and its three primary characteristics are inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Of course, people with ADHD can lead successful careers and lives without letting the diagnosis interfere, but for people like Pugh, who has ADHD, working from home during the pandemic really pushed her to evaluate how she stays productive and focused.

“For me, it was a survival mechanism in college to be able to work that way,” Pugh said about monotasking. “Somewhere between graduating from college and now, I kind of lost track of that way of working.”

Monotasking isn’t for everyone. In fact, Jo, who regularly posts about monotasking on TikTok, found that while a lot of users were happy to have discovered it through her videos, some other people seemed absolutely terrified by the idea.

“One immediate pushback is like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. This would never work for me,'” she said. “This truly triggers people because of how counterintuitive it feels for most people who are just used to having their phones attached to them, being at the mercy of every ping that they get.”

“There’s all sorts of pushback on it, but those [commenters] are not our customers,” Pugh added. “It’s one of those things where it’s like, if you get it and it’s for you, get in here. But if it’s not for you, I’m not going to waste my time trying to convince [you].”

It’s undeniable that burnout is everywhere. The American Psychological Association (APA) found that stress has been heightened for employees across all professions and that the stressors causing burnout are unlikely to subside anytime soon.

“Stress-reducing measures should be top of mind for employers and legislators alike,” APA writer Ashley Abramson advocated in a 2022 Trends Report. “APA’s data suggest[s] persistent workplace stress has contributed to reduced efficacy and exhaustion.”

Pugh believes that this atmosphere of endless stress has people “desperate for something different.”

“[Work is] taking up so much space in your brain, and so you’re building it into this whole big thing rather than just buckling down and doing it,” she said. “And so that’s basically what we’re giving people a space to do is just come. Be with that thing that maybe feels scary. It’s like gentle hand-holding.”

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