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The soothing, slightly sinister world of productivity hacks

There’s a crop of influencers romanticizing the workday. Is that a good thing?

An open notebook, glasses, a keyboard, and other office supplies on a desk. Getty Images

Before starting this job, I blew $50 at CVS on neon gel pens, pleather-bound notebooks, and felt-tipped highlighters because a TikToker told me they’d make me enjoy working more. In the past month, I haven’t used a single one.

The TikToker in question, @Studynotesideas, is an 18-year-old with nearly 650,000 followers who produces content for the overstressed and underprepared student. Each video is shot at her desk, which features a bubblegum-pink keyboard, a collection of rainbow gel pens, and a peek at her greeting card-esque handwriting. She tells us which pens you need for seamless notes (no smudging), study methods that guarantee results (active recall), and gadgets that prevent procrastination. Her schtick is gently intimidating and reminds me of when you’d ask the overachiever in your history class for the notes you missed.

I’ve watched nearly a hundred of her videos over the past four months, and after each binge, I’m convinced that with the right set of stationery and desk tchotchkes, I too can become more organized.

Such is the world of #ProductivityTok, or the suite of young adult content creators whose job is to teach America’s next generation of workers how to live to work. The genre harks back to what Cybernaut’s Fadeke Adegbuyi dubbed the “study web,” a network of Tumblr, YouTube, Discord, and Instagram influencers who encourage students to study with aestheticized livestreams and high school hacks. What began around 2013 with floral bullet-journal spreads and biology notes titled with calligraphy is now a cottage industry with the frenzied energy of a speed run through Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Everything is beautiful and pulsating with stress, and pastel notebooks and frothy matcha lattes bracket 15-hour days of studying, work, and “self-improvement.”

Now that much of Generation Z is graduating college and plowing into their first adult jobs, the landscape of productivity porn has become more amorphous. The corporate workflow software Notion has gone viral on TikTok, its hashtag amassing more than 49 million views as teenage creators use it to plan everything from their class schedules to the movies they watch, treating free time as something to be checked off a list. There’s #LawTok, where law students film themselves as they make oversized outlines and feel guilty about taking a break for a morning walk. There are Excel celebrities and resume czars and no shortage of morning routines that start at 6 am.

Here, the personal and professional blend. The goal, it appears, is to strive constantly, so even self-care is a means to an end. “One never exits a kind of work rapture, in which the chief purpose of exercising or attending a concert is to get inspiration that leads back to the desk,” wrote New York Times tech journalist Erin Griffith on this blind devotion to the grind in 2019. In other words, relaxation doesn’t exist in the “study web” unless it serves a clear purpose. You go on vacation because it rejuvenates you ahead of a busy season. You work out because the endorphins make meetings more tolerable. You read, but never for pleasure.

“Why would you read 300 pages when you can just figure [something] out in five minutes?” Neil Patel, a digital marketer and author of a New York Times bestseller on productivity, said in a now-deleted Twitter video where he encouraged his followers to swap books for blog posts and Instagram infographics because “you can consume information faster.”

There’s admittedly something soothing about watching people with boundless energy get their lives together, particularly after a year of uncontrollable disarray. But beneath each optimization tip is a scary idea: Raised on the myth of meritocracy, many members of Gen Z who watch these videos have turned to an unsustainable diet of rising and grinding to insulate themselves from the uncertainty of a post-pandemic economy.

“The American ethos ties together self-worth, value, and productivity. There’s an element of that in these videos because they remind us that we can always do better,” Lee Humphreys, a communications professor at Cornell whose research specializes in how we catalog our lives across social media, told me.

The self-made success story is inscribed in the concept of Americana. The social studies lessons I remember most are the ones about America’s first nouveau riche: the 49ers who gambled it all on the gold rush, not to mention J.D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the industrialists who epitomize the “titans of industry or robber barons” debate. Historians allege that $207 million worth of gold was pulled from the ground in California between 1849 and 1852, transforming the lives of miners who risked their savings and home mortgages. Meanwhile, Gilded Age entrepreneurship felt romantic: These were stories of men who made industries out of ideas, even if that meant breaking strikes at steel mills or cutting wages for railroad workers amid the Depression to maintain a bottom line.

Adulating DIY billionaires has never been about how they did it themselves but about the fact that they did. And isn’t that something?

Even now, the fantasy of independent wealth is an enticing one. In a 2019 Morning Consult survey, 54 percent of Gen Z-ers and millennials said they’d become an influencer if given the chance. If you ignore the implications of whom the algorithm makes famous, the path is eerily similar to prospecting for gold — on its face, the barriers to entry include a camera, a ring light, and a steady stream of palatable content.

In other words, whether the game is coming up with a 20-second dance trend or making Excel lists at an entry-level product management job, Gen Z hustle worshippers do so because of how it fits into the tapestry of American culture. Work hard, the thinking goes, and you will be rewarded, even if circumstances point to a future where we’ll likely be less well off than our parents. Subscribe to the hustle, and the systemic issues of our time — poverty, inequities in education, housing crises — become personalized.

According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z is on track to be the most educated generation ever, yet US workers younger than 25 experienced a 93 percent higher rate of layoffs during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic than those older than 35. Across all 2.5 billion of us worldwide, our cumulative income — currently estimated to be around $7 trillion — is expected to reach $33 trillion by 2030. But we’re also set to inherit a recession-laden job market marked by stagnating wages and plenty of job-hopping, making it difficult to accomplish our parents’ markers of success: homeownership, retirement savings, paid-off student loans.

So what does a generation raised to equate hard work with guaranteed prosperity do when it’s met with uncertainty? It works harder, and it makes videos reminding others how they can too.

“These videos are often a way of managing insecurity, right? Gen Z will never have the job security their parents or grandparents had,” said Humphreys. “The sort of self-scrutiny that comes along with these videos can help mitigate both economic and professional insecurities.”

#ProductivityTok thrives on the concept of aspirational labor, where the right combination of gadgets, manifestation, and rise-and-grind chutzpah can catapult anyone into the career of their dreams. But aspirational work and consumption have always been central to lifestyle content. While the idea of self-help can be traced back to 1859, when Samuel Smile’s book on the topic was published within months of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, self-help as we know it coalesced in the 1950s, with books on everything from positive thinking to how to pray yourself skinny.

Then came Tony Robbins, arguably self-help’s first influencer, who turned the law of attraction into a cash cow of books, tapes, and seminars promising the keys to self-actualization. His straight-to-the-camera ethos and unrelenting charm blurred the line between teaching and selling, not unlike most of what the “study web” ends up looking like.

Flash forward one year and a quarantine later, and self-help books and motivational TED Talks have given way to a genre of TikToks on how to “be that girl” — with “that’’ a euphemism for productive, high-achieving, and effortlessly organized — where the keys to success are as simple as waking up early, journaling, and staying hydrated. TikTok account @.becomethat.girl has more than 116,000 followers and deals in simple lists. “Do 10 minutes of yoga. Try eating no added sugar foods. Write a to-do list. Do your skin care. Drink 8 cups of water,” one video advises.

So the goal, it seems, isn’t necessarily to be productive, but rather to look productive.

“I have not seen empirical evidence to suggest that consuming this media necessarily leads to better, healthier, more productive behaviors,” said Humphrey, who points to the concept of narcotizing dysfunction, which maintains that viewing self-improvement content merely tricks viewers into believing they’re actively learning how to cook or study or manage their time. In actuality, they’re being lulled into a state of inaction.

Sure, the right mixture of these tips can make us more organized and focused, but the outcome isn’t always a better work-life balance or a more structured morning routine. It’s the gamification of labor, where the pressure for output is exhilarating because it’s tangible and trackable.

The productivity software sector — which encompasses workflow-management apps such as Slack, Asana, Trello, Todoist, and the ever-popular Notion — is expected to be worth nearly $103 billion by 2027 as the line between work and everything else continues to blur. Long before the pandemic drove swaths of the workforce into home offices (or onto couches), young families were turning to these apps to manage their schedules.

Even analog planners are evolving into trackers optimized for the hustle. Planners on the market now include habit and goal trackers that analyze how long we sleep and how often we exercise, look at our phones, or read. There’s something both dystopian and satisfying about coloring a square for each day I read 10 pages of a book or do my journaling in the morning, but are any of these things truly relaxing or intentional if they feel required?

In truth, I cheat at checklists. Most days I pack them with things I already accomplished — unloading the dishwasher, clearing my inbox, calling my mother — so it looks like I crossed off enough activities to justify an afternoon of reality television and takeout. Relaxation and accountability are antonyms, and I’d argue that if you have to check off the fact that you did, in fact, read for pleasure or go on a walk, you probably weren’t savoring it. You were probably thinking about what comes next.

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