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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Would You Pay Someone $40 to Keep You Focused on Work?

I found Focused by accident, while I was suffering from the very condition it wants to help people avoid. In bed and hunched over my laptop, I was scrolling through Twitter when I noticed someone I follow congratulating a woman on the launch of her new startup.

Lacking any of the necessary willpower to go back to my work, I spiraled further into a procrastination hole and clicked on the link.

“Working on something hard? Distracted? Overwhelmed? Imagine a place where you know you’ll get your work done,” the landing page read.

I didn’t believe such a place really existed, outside of maybe a plane at 35,000 feet before the advent of inflight Wi-Fi. But I was feeling preoccupied and stressed, and I wanted this mythical destination to be real, so I signed up for one of the company’s sessions last month. That’s how I found myself inside a drab office building in downtown San Francisco, feeling more like I was on my way to a dentist appointment than to experience the latest productivity solution to come out of Silicon Valley.

Focused has a deceptively simple premise: What if you could pay someone to help you accomplish undistracted work for a couple of hours? For $40 a pop, cofounders Nodira Khoussainova, 32, and Lee Granas, 40, put on a study hall of sorts, perfect for a certain breed of multitasking, multi-side-hustle, 21st-century adult. (They do also offer financial aid.) The company has two newly opened offices, one in San Francisco and one in nearby Oakland, where clients show up with laptops and one or more daunting tasks they hope to cross off their to-do lists.

The startup feels, in some ways, like a natural outgrowth of a culture that’s obsessed with optimization and an economy in which more people work remotely than ever. It caters to the same type of person that productivity apps, books, and gurus do, but it also provides access to what’s essentially a coworking space. Yet unlike other products and services that promise to help you get more things done, Focused doesn’t treat procrastination like a personal moral failing. Its founders believe that people probably can’t do everything they want to alone—they need a real, live human supporting them, even if it’s someone they pay.

Each session lasts two and a half hours and begins with a short one-on-one consultation with either Khoussainova or Granas about what the client wants to achieve. The point of these opening questions is not only to help people set goals but also for Focused’s founders to find the best ways to hold them accountable. Khoussainova asked me, for example, “What should I expect to see on your screen?”

I began by telling Khoussainova I wanted to work on an upcoming article but found myself articulating various work-related neuroses I usually reserve for my therapist. At the end, Khoussainova asked me to take three deep breaths: one letting go of the past, one letting go of the future, and finally one focusing on the present. “A lot of what we’re doing is working with people’s fears,” Granas said in an interview after my session. “Work is a lot of where we store our insecurities.”

Neither of Focused’s cofounders have a professional background in psychology, though Granas is working toward a master’s in the subject. They met at Burning Man 10 years ago and came to Focused after stints in the tech world: Khoussainova earned a PhD in computer science and was at Twitter for over five years, while Granas most recently worked for a productivity app called Workflowy.

The pair came up with the idea for Focused this spring, while working alongside one another at a coffee shop. “We were not planning to start a company at that point,” Khoussainova said. “But after that conversation, the idea just really, really resonated with me.”

Khoussainova began hosting sessions for friends at her house in Oakland, where she experimented with the format and length. Granas officially joined the company in August. They now host tens of Focused sessions Tuesday through Friday each week but declined to specify exactly how many. A handful of people attend each one.

Focused staggers session times so each client can meet with staff individually. Two other people were already typing away when Khoussainova led me into the small office that would be my workspace for the next few hours. The room was simply decorated—tasteful without being pretentious or intimidating. House plants dotted each desk, and a side table draped with woven fabric provided a pop of color. “It’s just attractive enough to be attractive but not so attractive that it sucks your energy away,” said Kate Rutter, 51, a UX designer and one of several clients Focused’s founders put me in touch with.

Every 20 minutes, Khoussainova checked on my progress and gave me an update about the amount of time remaining in the session. About halfway through, as we had agreed upon, she took away my phone and put it in the waiting room. It’s a common service she and Granas say clients ask for, although some are reluctant to give up their devices even if they want to. “I can’t think of a better word than ‘babysitting,’ but I’m not sure that’s the perfect analogy,” said Andy VanSickle-Ward, 40, a software developer who used his Focused session to finally organize the hundreds of emails that languished in his inbox.

Several Focused clients I spoke to said it was the ideal place for projects that aren’t urgent or even altogether necessary, but are nonetheless personally important and oftentimes difficult, like writing a book proposal or finally applying to graduate school. A friend of mine used her last session to brainstorm ideas for a startup, for example. It’s the type of ambitious, solitary work that can be hard to get done—even for accomplished people. “For me, there’s some kind of magical power in saying what you’re going to do out loud to another person,” said Sara Johnsen, a PhD student who has done about 20 Focused sessions.

At the end of mine, Khoussainova seemed genuinely thrilled to hear I had finished all of my work. It felt strangely intimate to share my progress with her, since it’s the kind of experience I had essentially only ever known to be solitary. “I think a lot of people come in and what they think they need is a disciplinarian that will help them get their work done,” she later said. “But ultimately, what a lot of people need, and what a lot of people don’t have, is a support system.”

Focused hasn’t yet accepted outside investment, but its founders says they are open to the idea in the future. It theoretically wouldn’t be hard to bring Focused to other cities. All that’s needed is a small office equipped with modest furniture and a few succulents. The hardest task would likely be replicating the warmth and thoughtfulness that Khoussainova and Granas exude when working with their clients; each woman has an emotional intelligence that isn’t necessarily easy to train new staff on. There’s a therapeutic element to what they're doing.

There’s also a risk, in a world where there’s constant pressure to work longer and harder, that people will do whatever is necessary to achieve more. When I told another friend about the startup, she recalled a recent experience with a challenging statistics class in her graduate program. If she had the opportunity to use something like Focused, this friend mused, she might have used its sessions to plow through the coursework instead of realizing she was better off not taking the class at all. Rather than teaching people how to accomplish anything, there’s also merit in helping them learn when they can, and should, do less.

Khoussainova and Granas have grappled with the possibility that Focused could inadvertently help perpetuate unhealthy habits like workaholism. They say they aren’t trying to turn clients into more optimized versions of themselves.

“When we were, like, let’s do this for real, I said to Nodira, ‘I don’t want to make a company that makes the world more productive.’ I don’t think the goal should be productivity,” said Granas. “This isn’t about that. This is about reconnecting to the deeper reason behind what you’re doing.”

Focused did seem to help me be more productive, or at least it took less time to finish tasks than I expected—in part because I spent less time scrolling through Twitter than usual. But I still found other distractions, like staring at my chipped nail polish, or the bubbles rising in the bottle of seltzer I brought. What brought me back to my work often was the nagging reminder that someone else was invested in it, too, even if they were a stranger.

Focused’s founders, though, don’t claim to have found a way to engineer more efficiency out of people. Their business is less a productivity hack and more like a ritual, where you travel to a soothing environment and a real person helps guide you through a task. In an age where many have ascribed to work the kind of meaning they once reserved for religion, that ritual can feel almost holy. “It’s interesting to see the preciousness people have around their focused sessions,” Granas said. “One of our clients once said, ‘I wouldn’t go to Reddit during my Focused session because that would feel like horsing around in a church.’”

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