The Body Double: A Unique Tool for Getting Things Done
Can something as simple as another person’s presence make it easier to stay on task?
While there’s no research to prove its effectiveness, ADHD body doubling is helping many people get things done – starting with my client, David.
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 workspace, I 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.
He had working systems in place, but he felt terribly disorganized and distracted.
David contacted me because I specialize in coaching adults with 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 one born of the unique mix of client and coach inventing together. I call it the body double.
Originally published in 1996, this article was republished on October 24, 2022.
What Is ADHD Body Doubling?
ADHD body doubling is a productivity strategy used by individuals with ADHD to finish possibly annoying jobs while having another person beside them. This person is the body double. The body double’s duty is to keep the individual with ADHD focused on the task at hand to reduce potential distractions.
David had been surprised by a recent diagnosis of ADD, which explained his lifelong difficulty accomplishing 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 to transition from one task to 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 instantly realized that I had seen this same effect before with other clients.
There were times when just having someone in proximity (not advising, sorting, or strategizing) brought clarity and focus. I felt it. I knew my clients felt it, too.
This phenomenon of just being there, which David first described out loud, I named thebody double.
Why Does Body Doubling Work?
There are a few possible explanations as to why a body double works as a strategy for getting through challenging or boring tasks. In the moment, it can counter ADHD symptoms that sap motivation, focus, and energy.
A Supportive Presence Adds Motivation
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 their over-stimulated mind and body would like to be at the moment.
It Provides a Model of Calm Focus
The body double becomes a model of control and a mirror, confidently reflecting the message: I can concentrate. I am working. I am focused.
This theory might actually carry some weight. In the 1980s, neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD, along with colleagues at the University of Parma, made a serendipitous discovery while researching 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.” 
The researchers theorized that mirror neurons also existed in humans, 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 thebody doubleeffect, 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.
Adds Positive Energy to the Workspace
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). It is viewed as being either in or out of balance in the human body and 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 gong, 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 no 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.
What to Look For in a Body Double
Who and what should you look for in a body double?
Find someone who can be quiet and independent. They can sit, read, knit, or work quietly on a laptop. Their job is to not engage with 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.
You may also consider finding an ADHD coach to help you identify the best strategies for you.
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 sometimes served as a body double and other times as office assistants. Knowing when to hire someone to help with office work or with just paying the bills is a valuable 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 helpful tool in your magic bag of tricks to use at just the right time to get a job done and stay on track.
If you’d like to learn more about adult ADHD, ADDA+ offers 200+ webinars, peer support groups, work groups, and much more.
Linda Anderson, MA, MCC, SCAC, is a master certified coach, a leader in the field of ADHD coaching and the founder of Getting Clear.
(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/
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.
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
This made me smile, it’s so recognizable!
I fully agree that accountability has a lot to do with why this works. If I’m sitting there by myself I can start veering off into my distractions but I know someone is watching me and this is what I said that I Was going to do. The other thing what works for me when I’m alone though is chatting with someone even on a webcam while I do my work that I need to do.. that is even enough to stimulate the accountability.
It’s helpful for me !! I pay for cleaning services just for have this energy to clean and organize. When she arrives at home I am next to her to help and organized everything and throughout things that I don’t need it at the end of the day, I feel so good for all those things that I did.
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.
Have you had any luck finding a body double? If so let me know because I don’t even know where to start looking! Lol
Where you can find a body-double that you can trust? I don’t understand why the role involves anything more than the standard amount of trust that someone isn’t going to steal from you. The body double job is literally just someone sitting in the same room as you as unobtrusively as they can…
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!
This is fascinating. My 7 year old has not been diagnosed as having ADD but I do believe she has a mild case of it. She sometimes has a lot of trouble focusing on doing her math homework in particular. She’s happy to sit and read a book but couldn’t care less about doing her math, even though she’s good at it. Her brain wanders and she starts playing with anything in her general vicinity. But if I sit down and put her on my lap, and prompt her to move from one problem to the next, she suddenly gets hyper focused and finishes it in 10 minutes. I don’t really understand why this works either but it is just as you describe- there’s something magical about it. And it’s not just being in her presence that helps- I think it is also the physical contact that seems to have that grounding effect.
I have ADD and could not concentrate enough to get through the entire article. It was way too much information to get through in one sitting. Maybe I need a system for that!
Please consider using a text-to-speech application to read things to you.
Really good article, I am not diagnosed with ADHD but when I am alone sometimes I procrastinate a lot or do things more slowly, but when I have someone on my side or a teammate I feel like I have no excuses for do things slowly and procrastinate, I start working faster and even more efficient and then I can do better. Never thought of this, I am 27 years old living on my own, may talk to a coach to know more about this. Great read.
Where can I do this?
focusmate.com is a great place to do it virtually for free! it helps me a lot
Ah yes, I’ve also used cofocus.one, both are great!
To anybody that is wanting a body double but doesn’t have a physical person to help with it, I would like to suggest watching “work with me” or “study with me” videos on YouTube. I doubt there is any research on this, but it has a similar affect on me.
There are now folks connecting via zoom for this very purpose! No actual talking, even, just “on camera” together, several strangers who have connected via groups created for this very purpose to body double for one another to study or work during the pandemic. Folks are reporting that it has been extraordinarily helpful!
there is a website called focusmate created by someone who needed this kind of help and it’s free and great!
Great article Linda! While I haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD, I share a name with the subject of the article, and can attest to the usefulness of body doubling for everyone, and have heard from so many friends with ADHD that it’s especially effective for them! Also very cool to theorize/analogize body doubling’s effectiveness to mirror neurons— hadn’t heard of that theory before!
Many ADHD adults and specially kids need more than just a presence. An important piece of the body double is redirecting and asking questions to keep aADHD Person engaged in the task.
If your task can be done at a coffee shop or library I find it helpful. There’s something in the human design theory about how since most of us are open and defined in different ways we tend to feel complete in the presence of a crowd even without interaction.