Entertainment

Why We Can’t Get Enough of Watching Other People Organize Their Lives

Whether it's through watching Notion setups on TikTok or bullet journal videos on YouTube, you don't have to be productive to feel productive.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
February 8, 2021, 12:00pm
screenshot of a notion setup video by youtuber janice studies
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Screenshot via YouTube/JaniceStudies

As The Verge reported last month, the workspace and note-taking app Notion has been blowing up on TikTok, with users making videos showing off their colorful customized interfaces. "This is your sign to get Notion and organize your life," says a robotic voice in a clip by the user @cur.tas. Featuring gifs from animated movies and an image of the "24/7 lofi hip hop beats" girl, the video picked up over 1.1 million views in less than two days. And with good reason: Thanks to the app's streamlined and aesthetically pleasing task management system—initially popular among start-ups, but now increasingly among TikTok teens and YouTube creators—Notion offers the promise of a tidier digital life, and, as a result, a happier and more productive self. 

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I know this because I watch Notion videos. I watch them just as I watch bullet journal "Plan With Me" tutorials: with no true intention of adopting the system, or any other productivity "method" that isn't a mildly chaotic Moleskine planner. I tried bullet journaling but found it too tedious, can't manage my tasks on Google Calendar, and gave up on Trello long ago. I can't imagine that Notion and I would jive either. And yet, I still find comfort in the idea of Notion—or, to be more precise, watching detailed depictions of how other people use it to get organized. 

According to Janice, a registered nurse and digital creator who posts studying-related content for her hundreds of thousands of followers under the name Janice Studies, Notion is trendy right now because it "turns this mundane process into something fun, creative, and aesthetically pleasing—elements that you see in very few productivity apps." Not only are viewers drawn in by Notion's pretty spreads, she said; they're also intrigued by how others' setups might fit their needs. 

Notion's growing presence on YouTube over the past year can also be attributed to smart marketing; Janice has created sponsored content for Notion that has gotten hundreds of thousands of views. Still, many other guides appear to have been created organically, by devoted, organized Notion fans. 

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Notion how-to videos, setups, and templates are the latest trend in the online productivity subculture known as Studyblr (the studying niche on Tumblr), Studygram (Instagram), Studytube (YouTube), and now Studytok (TikTok), where creators cover notetaking, organization, desk setups, and more. After designer Ryder Carroll began sharing the bullet journal method online in 2013, the practice took off in these spaces, resulting in the genre of "Plan With Me" content, where creators walk viewers through how they organize their notebooks, page by page. 

If you actually need advice for managing your life, the appeal of this stuff is obvious. So why do I, a person who's accepted a dirtbag approach to personal organization, watch productivity videos for apps I'll never use? For one thing, productivity content is fodder for nosiness; we seem to be endlessly interested in other people's routines and daily habits. But its biggest draw, for me, is the sense of vicarious self-actualization these videos offer. I feel good, somehow, from seeing someone else get their life in order. It's productivity, without being productive. 

Part of the draw comes down to the visuals. "The colors and the organization, it's very pretty, and it looks very full and organized, which brings a sense of calm and order [for] people," said Melody Wilding, a licensed master social worker, executive coach, and author of the forthcoming book Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work

"Watching people talk about how they organize their lives is like ASMR to me," said Ria Elciario, a writer and art director. Elciario has tried bullet journaling and Notion in the past, but she found both options too time-intensive. She still watches these videos, though—and says she finds herself returning over and over again to a 2016 bullet journal walkthrough from YouTuber Rachel Nguyen, just because she finds its content pleasing to watch. "[Productivity content] tickles the creative part of my brain and gives me a sense of encouragement to 'do better,'" she said.

Music producer Adam Sliger says that his computer-focused job makes it easy to fall down YouTube rabbit holes: productivity videos, but also how-tos on competition barbecue, weightlifting, knifemaking, and woodworking—even though he has no plans to do any of those things. To him, watching these processes unfold has a certain "infotainment" appeal. And when it comes to productivity content in particular, he says there's something aspirational at play, too. "Even if I don't actually up my productivity, the potential that it might happen is enough to justify the 10 minutes of watch time," he said.

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Sanchia Rodrigues, a writer and teacher who also likes watching productivity videos, points out that life's ups and downs can feel out of one's control sometimes—especially over the past year. To cope, she tunes into clips related to creating specific notebook formats, managing study time, and taking or organizing notes. "I like that in theory, there’s this world where things are bitesize and manageable and everything gets done at the end of the day," Rodrigues said, adding that these videos offer a sense of security and reassurance. 

Though Janice has been creating videos in the studying sphere for over two years, she says she's still trying to understand why people find them so magnetizing. "Simply put, I think this content gets people excited," she said. Her hunch is that many of us have the desire for self-improvement in the back of our minds, whether we choose to act on it or not, and seeing others work productively helps us visualize what change might look like. "It's kind of like living vicariously through someone to get a sense of what being a better version of yourself can look like," she said.

Yashwina Canter, who works in book publicity and marketing, says watching productivity content gives her a chance to play around in her imagination and dream up different selves—ones who can commit to strategies her present self hasn't. "It’s always kinda nice, like hanging out with the alternate universe version of myself who has her shit more together/together in different ways," Canter said. She imagines an alternate timeline in which she studied art history and had been a "bullet journal girl," or another where she'd gone to college in New York and used an online to-do list, so she could check on her phone and "look important." 

The downside to watching productivity videos, of course, is that beautiful designs from dedicated creators and the promise of a shiny new system can set unrealistic expectations—whether viewers actually use those methods or not. "People get very discouraged when their system does not look like the other person's system," Wilding said. As a result, they might avoid organization strategies entirely instead of sticking through the messy parts required to make their chosen system work—or simply use these videos as a form of procrastination, Wilding explained.

The procrastination aspect can be particularly seductive when we're feeling overwhelmed by our work. According to Therese Mascardo, a licensed clinical psychologist who runs the online community Exploring Therapy, big tasks can feel like threats, forcing us into "fight, flight, or freeze" mode. Watching videos about productivity can be tempting in those moments, Mascardo says, because they feel "less threatening than the actual tasks that we're supposed to do"—while also giving us a sense that we're making progress toward our goal. Unlike an open-ended obligation, these bite-sized pieces of content provide a sense of resolution.

I understand the benefit of organizing tasks and projects in one place instead of leaving some in a notebook and the rest rattling around my head, but it's hard to make a change. Life, especially as a writer tied to the internet, moves so fast that slogging through the setup of a new system seems like it would only slow me down. Nonetheless, part of me knows there’s room for improvement, even if it's at the bottom of a to-do list I ignore. 

And maybe that's why I love watching these videos: A hope that the more of this content I watch, the less distance I'll see between that action and myself. Or maybe, it's all an excuse for me to keep watching and procrastinating. Sliger, for his part, told me he is trying to cut back on the time-suck of infotainment content: He realized that for him, productivity isn't a matter of needing specific tips, but discipline.

Still, Janice believes that observing others' productivity can be beneficial in itself. "If you're invested in that feeling long enough, then you start aspiring to be a more organized person by actually taking action to become the organized person that you watch in so many videos," she said. "It's a great thing, really. People want to see how getting organized can be fun and interesting, not dreadful."

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