Unpacking social media’s unrealistic and harmful ‘productivity aesthetic’

Your hard work is valid, even without the avocado toast and scented candles

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Parker Peters / Daily Collegian

By Kelly McMahan, Collegian Columnist

With multiple YouTube tabs open on my laptop, I typed the buzzword sentences “aesthetic and productive morning routine,” and “that girl morning routine TikTok” into the search bars. Instantly, thousands of thumbnails appeared highlighting pastel bubble letters, aesthetic outfits, crisp white duvets and sunlit bullet journals. It was a visual paradise of order and elegance.

I was looking up these videos for research purposes only. After all, I had an article to write—but it certainly wasn’t my first time watching this kind of content.

Over the summer, I was a dedicated consumer of these “productive routine” videos. I’d balance my phone on the edge of the treadmill, watching as other girls filmed themselves effortlessly waking up at 5 a.m., making breakfast, working out and doing homework to the beat of low-fi music while I clenched my teeth and angrily pounded through another kilometer. Afterward, I’d refuel my body’s resolve by watching these girls, with thin wrists and 11-line abs, documenting their smoothie bowls and whipped coffees. 

Within this content genre, the “that girl” trend was born. “That girl” is a catch-all internet archetype depicting a hyper-focused, well-dressed, fit and conventionally attractive young woman. Who wouldn’t want to be her? The language of the label itself is gilded with the romanticization of an unattainable otherness. “That girl” is that girl because you are not. TikToks and videos that feature the “‘that girl’ morning routine” or “becoming ‘that girl’” promote the idea that a beautiful, high-achieving girl must embody a certain lifestyle in order to actually have that identity. The self-comparison festers.

With my first year of college just months away, I was pursuing a self-disciplined, productive lifestyle with a vengeance. The pandemic made life disorganized. The impeccably organized lives I saw became my burning motivation. If their lives are so perfect, then mine should be, too!

Eventually, I realized this was a misguided way to go about self-work, and I stopped watching this content. The question remained: why was I so affected by these videos? I always reminded myself that social media was dangerously deceptive, but this voice of reason seemed to vanish on TikTok and YouTube where “perfection” was backed by convincing video evidence.

 Part of this content’s allure has to do with the mesmerizing rhythm created by TikTok’s neatly edited 15-second template. Many of these productivity TikToks feature text boxes that organize the day within a meticulous timetable. In one TikTok, the screen flashes: “7 a.m. wake up, don’t check social media, daily affirmation, drink water, make bed,” “7:12 a.m. plan day, journal,” 7:33 a.m. get outside, move.”

As busy college students, we desperately strive to achieve as many daily tasks as possible, reveling in the virtuous satisfaction that comes with being productive and organized. To see a day structured within strict intervals — and followed down the minute — scratches the frantic itch of our daily to-do list aspirations. We may describe this type of content as “oddly satisfying.”

But the ever-changing environment of college life makes such unwavering structure unrealistic and unsustainable. We hit the snooze button in the morning, we chat with friends in the hallway, we have periods of low energy and pop-up responsibilities that make daily schedules inconsistent. We waste so many minutes of the day—and that’s how it’s supposed to be.

So how has social media made such rigid productivity so alluring?

Part of this issue comes from productivity culture itself. Productive people are often admired and praised, their work ethic being equated to character strengths and moral goodness. This isn’t to say that productivity and hard work shouldn’t be rewarded, but a problem arises when this beloved productivity becomes a competition.

In competition, the goal strays from engaging with fulfilling, self-affirming work. Instead, it’s all about showing others just how productive you can be. New York Times journalist Sophie Haigney writes in an article about these routine TikToks, “The implicit promise is that we, too, might schedule our lives this way.” She adds, “someone invites you into her day, but mostly to show you how yours might be lived better.”

Productivity content excuses itself through the righteous guise of spreading empowerment and motivation, but when you boil it down, it’s just a dishonest performance by our generation’s anxious go-getters. These videos argue that anyone can be perfect, as long as they have enough sheer will-power. The burnout and faltering energy that inevitably follows are branded as character flaws.

The other main selling point of productivity content comes down to aesthetics.

I wouldn’t problematize productivity content if it actually prioritized reasonable, realistic advice, but that’s not the case right now. Besides promoting a scheduled life that’s wildly unsustainable, most of these videos advertise this lifestyle through a formulaic progression of beautiful and elite aesthetics.

For example, while researching, I watched many YouTube compilations of this productivity content. I would press the forward arrow key, skipping through the videos at 5-second intervals. I found that while the creators of the videos changed with each skip, the formula did not. The same kinds of items and foods reappeared. A strict set of aesthetics blurred any individuality. Routines were interchangeable and became a role to be played.

The influencer’s MacBook Pro displays the time: 6:00 a.m. They stretch in front of the window of their roomy, bright metropolitan apartment and gaze out at the million-dollar view. Their bathtub faucet is sleek and modern. A Lululemon exercise set is folded and tossed onto supple, white sheets. Manicured hands fill a journal with to-do lists and affirmations. The fridge is stocked with artisanal cold brew. Avocado is spread onto bagels. Facial toner is squeezed from expensive skincare bottles. Candles are lit upon clean desktops. There is no clutter. There is no mess.

Everything is just right.

But what are impressionable teens and college students supposed to do? These influencers need to be mindful of the messages they send through their content. Their elitist lifestyle advertisement is performed for an audience that deals with the realities of early classes, jobs and family responsibilities. Most of us don’t have the money, time or space to prep pretty meals, buy name-brand clothing and enjoy a mindful candle-lit breakfast.

I want to remind my generation that productivity doesn’t have to be beautiful in order to be valid. Your most productive self may not need an affirmation journal. While many of us do find comfort in good food and nice material goods, we don’t need to put pressure on ourselves to fulfill some aesthetic character role in order to make our work habits appear more admirable. As long as your work is honest and practical, my advice is to ignore the expectations.

Kelly McMahan can be reached at [email protected].