The Body Double: A Unique Tool for Getting Things Done

I specialize in coaching adults who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). During my twenty-three years of coaching, I have gathered many tools and strategies for helping clients accomplish desired change and create order out of chaos.

The tool I want to share with you today is a tool born of the unique mix of client and coach inventing together. I call it the body double.

When I first met David, he was a retired vice president of a major corporation. In his “retirement”, he was running three businesses out of his home-based office, two of them overseas. Observing David in his work space, I actually found him to be quite organized. He wasn’t sitting eyeball high in papers. In fact, he hardly had any papers around him at all, and he had many working systems in place, but he felt terribly disorganized and distracted.

David had been surprised with a recent diagnosis of ADD, which explained to him and his wife a lifelong difficulty accomplishing certain mundane tasks that others seemed to handle with ease. As a VP in the corporate world, he had always had an executive assistant to connect the dots and pull loose ends together. Now, however, he had the time to do these tasks; he even had the will to do them; he just couldn’t stay on track. David’s wife also ran a business out of their home and had her own well organized office. She offered to advise him but they both quickly agreed this just didn’t work. That’s when they asked for help.

First, I helped David modify his storage systems. Then together, we honed his time management and prioritization systems. Nothing, however, seemed to address the problem of his inattention and distraction. There were days, too many days, when he easily got off track or found it hard transitioning from one task into another. Frustrated, puzzled and somewhat embarrassed, he confessed, “You know, it seems that, sometimes, if I just have my wife sitting in a chair nearby, I can accomplish more than if I’m alone.”

Though reluctantly, David had identified a strategy that really worked for him. I realized instantly that I had seen this same effect before with other clients. There were times when just being in proximity, not advising, sorting, or strategizing, brought clarity and focus to the client. I felt it. I knew the client felt it, too. This phenomenon of just being there, which David first described out loud, I named the body double.

But why does a body double work? There are a few possible explanations. The simplest is that the body double serves as a physical anchor for the distracted individual who feels more focused by the presence of another person in their space. The distracted person feels responsible to and for the body double. This perception translates as­–I can’t waste this gift of time.

Another explanation might be that the body double serves as a kind of mirror– a calm reflection for the individual with ADHD of how his over-stimulated mind and body would like to be at the moment. The body double thus becomes a model of control and a mirror confidently reflecting back the message: I can concentrate. I am working. I am focused.

This theory might actually carry some weight. In the 1980’s, neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD, along with colleagues at the University of Parma, made a serendipitous discovery, while conducting research on macaque monkeys. They observed that specific neurons in the macaque’s brain fired when watching another monkey, or a human, reach for a peanut. They named these neurons “mirror neurons”. (1)

The researchers theorized that mirror neurons existed in humans as well, and were the likely explanation for our ability to emulate and empathize with others. As much as this seems to make complete sense, and sounds like the perfect validation for the body double effect, please note, the scientific community is in quite a bit of disagreement as to whether humans actually have mirror neurons. So, the mirror neuron theory does not give us a definitive answer.

I have one more explanation to offer as to why the body double might work. In eastern cultures energy is referred to as chi (or qi) and is viewed as being either in or out of balance in the human body, as well as, in the surrounding environment. Acupuncturists move chi or energy to recreate balance and promote health. There are many forms of exercise and meditation, tai chi and chi gung to name a few, which are about the management and flow of energy. Feng shui (fung shway) is the 5,000 year old art of balancing positive and negative chi in the space around us, with the goal of optimizing healthy energy in one’s living and working space.

What would chi have to do with a body double? The body double might be a chi balancer or protective barrier helping to contain and calm the energy in and around the person with ADHD. The body double might also be a buffer against distracting energy from the outside, ready to bombard the vulnerable ADHD brain.

Whichever explanation you prefer, there’s not denying the effectiveness of the body double. Consider this strategy a gift from David and the many other ADHDers who have experienced its magic. If a task requires your attention and seems impossible to complete alone–beg, borrow or pay for a body double to sit in the chair next to you.

Who and what should you look for in a body double? Find someone who can be fairly quiet and independent. He or she can sit, read, knit, or work quietly on a laptop. Their job is to not engage you. It requires energy to instruct, supervise or be interrupted by another person, and that expenditure of energy equates to distraction.

This is not to say that you do not need to hire outside help–a professional organizer or office assistant. There is such a time. I encouraged David to hire a student, retiree or fellow church member to sit and keep him company. His wife may not be the best person for the job, but he could use her in a pinch.

Following our discovery, David occasionally hired short term office support help, who served sometimes as body double, other times as office assistants. Knowing when to hire someone to help with office work or with just paying the bills is also a useful skill in getting things done.

In lieu of any proven scientific explanation, the body double is a chair holder, space taker-upper, karmic anchor or a wedge between you and the door. Hopefully, it might be a useful tool in your own magic bag of tricks to use at just the right time for getting a job done and staying on track.


(1) Thomas, B. (November 6, 2012) What’s So Special about Mirror Neurons? Scientific American. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/whats-so-special-about-mirror-neurons/


Linda Anderson, MA, MCC, SAC, is a master certified coach, a leader in the field of ADHD coaching and the  founder of Getting Clear. Learn more about Linda in her ADDA Professional Directory entry.

    • LeeS
    • July 20, 2016
    Reply

    I’m a woman in her 60’s, originally from the U.S., who’s been living in Australia many years. I have no family here and live on my own. I have ADHD mixed type. Although I’ve heard the term ‘body double’ in regards to people with ADHD having them assist with tasks you find difficult to tackle or can’t do, I’ve not heard of it for a person who just sits [quietly] with you. However, it kind of makes good sense: I’m always telling people that I really enjoy and benefit from someone just being here with me while I do chores/projects that I am loathe to do, or procrastinate about. I confess I’d probably prefer if we could have some talking, as it fills the house with company, which I miss. I do get some occasional coaching from an excellent ADHD Coach here in Perth, Western Australia, and I will discuss this slight alternative with her when we next chat!

    • Eddie Eddie
    • July 16, 2016
    Reply

    Not yet officially diagnosed with ADHD, I found this article about me not David. I live by myself and am a single, middle age male. My house is a mess because I buy things like furniture and other furnishings because buying those things give me a sense of calmness and or satisfaction. But now my house is cluttered to the point of a hoarder. When people come over to “help” me clean or organize I get very irritated. A body double is definitely my answer I think. Now where to find one I can trust is my next project.

    • Jack
    • June 23, 2016
    Reply

    The reason body double works for me is the simple things that would give me an excuse to walk away from a task would not make sense to a normal person
    In a way they are making me acountable
    Because at some leval I know my excuse is just that
    An excuse to move to something more interesting

    • Teresa Archbold
    • June 23, 2016
    Reply

    Is it possible to use an animal as a body double? My husband and daughter are both diagnosed with ADHD. My daughter keeps our dog around her like a baby doll (this seems to be more of a distraction to her though) and my husband loves fish. We have three fish tanks in the house and a small pond outside, he also has a tank in his office at work. They do seem to calm him and perhaps help him focus but by the time he gets home from work he’s generally so tired he goes to sleep. He will however get a second wind around 10:00pm.

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