Mastering Concentration in an Inattentive World through Virtual Co-working

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The primary guideline of Flow Club, an online community offering co-working sessions, is to observe silence during the designated periods of "muted deep work". However, before delving into our individual projects, the host, based in Toronto and distant from my location in Stockton-on-Tees, prompts me and my fellow co-worker, who happens to be a programmer in the Netherlands, to openly share our objectives.

Intending to impress, I have formulated a rather ambitious goal: "To engage in scientific paper research for my book." To my surprise, the host puts forth more humble aspirations, including "defining his goals" and simply "eating" – a latecomer from the Bay Area also joins us in an on-camera meal. Yet, once engrossed in my papers, I completely forget about the presence (or lack thereof) of my virtual co-workers. Later on, I receive a congratulatory email accompanied by a thumbs-up GIF.

Flow Club aims to assist its members in blocking out distractions and achieving a state of "flow" – that coveted mental state in which one becomes so immersed and focused that they lose track of time. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his influential book "Flow" from 1990, describes it as follows: "The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is pushed to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." According to his research, the more we experience this state of flow, the more content we are with our lives. Paradoxically, work, with its challenges and objectives, becomes easier to enjoy than leisure time.

Unfortunately, our internal mental dialogues and our work environments often hinder the flow experience, as it is easily disrupted. Surprisingly, a video call with a group of strangers may not seem like an obvious solution. Yet, the emergence of various virtual co-working platforms like FlowClub, Flown, and Caveday in recent years suggests a genuine demand for such experiences. This trend aligns with the concept of "body doubling" or "parallel working". Although observing strangers working online may appear strange, as Forbes magazine recently reported, this novel practice is essentially the modern adaptation of working alongside others, as it used to be in a physical office. With the shift to remote work, many individuals struggle to maintain their focus.

Users of virtual co-working platforms, who pay a monthly fee similar to a gym membership (Flow Club charges around £30), also benefit from accountability. The Flow Club website compares it to the difference between exercising alone at the gym and participating in a workout class. Inspired partly by the concept of boutique fitness, Flow Club aims to create an energetic virtual environment akin to working at a café, all without the need to relocate your laptop to the restroom.

The Flow Club's commitment to enhancing mental agility appeals strongly to me, especially the idea of a book-writing marathon. My mental fitness, much like my physical fitness, has declined over time. Approaching 40, I often find myself attempting to work from home while being surrounded by my three young children, one of whom has special needs. Distractions seem to be multiplying.

In today's attention-driven society, I find myself selling or renting out my focus. We are currently facing a severe attention crisis, as journalist Johann Hari highlights in his recent book, Stolen Focus, published in 2022. According to Hari, the decline in our collective ability to concentrate is not a personal failing but is influenced by "powerful forces," particularly Big Tech. With virtual co-working, I now have to pay to regain my focus. The overwhelming increase in the amount of information we are exposed to has come at the expense of depth. Spending enough time being interrupted leads to self-interruption. However, experts offer a more optimistic perspective, suggesting that the brain is akin to a muscle – the more you exercise concentration, the stronger it becomes.

Founder Alicia Navarro describes Flown as the "Peloton for work." She explains that it transforms tasks into events that you actively participate in and commit to. I can't help but wonder if attention has become not just a commodity but a luxury. Hari's book warns of a future where an "attention upper class" will recognize and resist the forces of distraction, while those with fewer resources will be easily manipulated.

Navarro assures that Flown is not elitist, costing the same for a year as a night in a "budget" hotel. Initially, Flown was conceived as an Airbnb for workspaces, but Navarro wanted to create something accessible to everyone, not just the affluent. With approximately half of its members reporting some form of neurodiversity, primarily ADHD, Flown is available through the government's Access to Work scheme, which supports individuals with disabilities or physical and mental health conditions. Friday "Flocks" are free for all.

Navarro's ultimate goal is to develop a platform like Headspace or Calm but for deep work and flow, which she believes will become the new mindfulness trend. More organizations are adopting focus strategies, such as designating no-meeting Fridays. My first two-hour Flock session feels like attending a virtual conference. The host divides the 30-something participants into breakout rooms to share our goals and discuss what courage means to us. During the break, she encourages us to draw symbols of courage. Unsure of what to draw, I end up sketching Spider-Man.

Flown drew inspiration from computer science professor Cal Newport's book, Deep Work, published in 2016. Newport defines deep work as "professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit." This type of work is becoming increasingly scarce and valuable. Unfortunately, knowledge workers often find themselves drowning in "shallow" work, as studies reveal an average attention span of merely three minutes. Professor Newport believes that those who prioritize deep work will thrive as digital technology revolutionizes the job market.

Nearly a decade ago, I became a freelance features writer partly to escape the distractions of an office environment – and that was before the introduction of Slack. Working from home has proved convenient but not always easy or enjoyable. Although I have utilized co-working spaces in the past, my current low-cost strategy involves making a cup of coffee and listening to the same music on repeat. Do I truly need assistance to perform my work? After all, this is my profession.

As co-founder Ricky Yean of Flow Club points out, exploring new ways of working involves a certain level of ego and vulnerability. "No one wants to believe they could be more responsible." Even with unhindered mornings and afternoons on my calendar, I am surprised by the difficulty I face in logging my co-working sessions. On more than one occasion, my wife interrupts me, asking me to hold our baby, yet my co-workers seem unfazed, likely due to their unwavering focus.

Struggling to manage my schedule is a constant challenge due to conflicting commitments and limited availability. However, I also have to admit that a significant portion of my day is not as productive as I had hoped. Flown suggests reserving sessions well in advance, preferably a week or more, but I confess that I lack the necessary organization. I find myself undervaluing the importance of deep work outside of scheduled sessions. If I concentrate on a task when no one is around to witness it, does it even count?

Luckily, Flown provides an unsupervised silent room called the Drop-In, where I can observe others working and receive supportive biceps emoticons. The Flow Club's Lounge, on the other hand, functions as a pomodoro timer, with 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break. As for Caveday's Solo Cave, it is a video featuring the phrase, "You are inside the cave." It may seem somewhat contrived and whimsical, but surprisingly, it is effective. My mental well-being has greatly improved.

Initially, I had concerns that virtual co-working might be a form of performative virtual presenteeism or a glorification of the culture of overwork. However, what I actually witness is individuals struggling to accomplish their tasks, often in their loungewear and occasionally interrupted by their feline companions. It is more comforting and inspiring than one might imagine. I find myself diligently working alone in my cluttered room, with varying degrees of success, but I am not alone in my experiences.

Virtual co-working is not solely about work; it also creates a clearer distinction between work and leisure time, particularly now that many of us essentially live in our offices. It offers a convenient way to allocate and manage our time. What surprises me constantly is the number of users who utilize their sessions for activities unrelated to work, such as exercising, playing the guitar, or tidying up their bedding. While flow and deep work are interconnected, they are not synonymous. Flow can be found in the simple act of washing dishes.

Amongst the various options available, I am particularly impressed by the extensive range of services offered by Flown and their clever wordplay. However, Flow Club provides more flexibility in terms of session times and durations that suit my needs. I have found the 1.30pm slot, hosted by Dave, a laid-back engineer from the East Coast, to be exceptionally beneficial. After one session, during which my goal was to write this very story, he inquired about my progress on another article that I had worked on in a previous session the week before. It makes me feel truly connected to something tangible and genuine.

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