Sometime over the last decade, the word “productivity” took on a whole new significance. While it was once just office-speak you’d hear in your annual performance review, it’s now part of the “side-hustle” lexicon, an aspirational quality we can all develop – with the right amount of work.
Tech leaders – Jack Dorsey, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg – and the odd high-profile Hollywood star like Mark Wahlberg have been the trailblazers of extreme productivity. Beholden to 12-hour workdays, the brains behind social media platforms and expensive gadgets famously crowbar meetings, exercise, meditation and power naps into their every waking second.
Twitter founder Dorsey, for instance, rises at 5AM to sit in a sauna, take an ice bath, meditate for an hour and walk five miles to Twitter’s offices – all before the work day has even begun. He eats just one meal a day. “The time back from breakfast and lunch allowed me to focus more,” he once said of his intense diet.
In recent years, the popularity of heavily stage-managed self-optimisation has diversified beyond the tech bros of Silicon Valley, spawning the rise of a new influencer niche: the productivity guru. These content creators have gained thousands of followers by posting time-saving tips, life hacks and productivity advice online.
With many studying or working from home for the first time because of the pandemic – and others trying to fill their time on furlough – Google Trends data shows that searches for “productivity” and “time management” hit a five-year high in 2020, peaking in September. According to YouTube, 78 percent of people who used the site during 2020 watched educational content, with 82 percent watching videos to teach themselves something. Study content – everything from livestreamed “study with me” videos to detailed plans to getting the most out of online school – have seen meteoric success. A ten-hour study video from the channel KharmaMedic recently received over 2 million views.
Meanwhile, without the usual place-markers, like office hours, pub closing times or gym classes, time in lockdown has felt like a flat circle, spent endlessly watching content or doom-scrolling through the news. Productivity influencers offer an alluring alternative – a life mapped out in Google calendar squares and neatly colour-coded notebooks.
Like Dorsey, productivity guru and Junior Doctor Ali Abdaal also rises early. He reviews the latest data from his smart ring and high-tech scales, before showering and then practicing mindfulness as his coffee brews. Not a second is wasted: on his commute, he listens to an audiobook played at 1.5 speed for faster consumption. All of this is outlined in videos on his YouTube channel, subscribed to by 1.36 million people.
Ali’s Youtube subscriber count grew by 877,000 in 2020, while his Skillshare productivity course has 72,000 users enrolled. “Things have really exploded since the pandemic started,” he tells me over Zoom. “I think a lot of people have found themselves with all this free time. Instead of just sitting at home, they’re asking, ‘What can I do to better my life or improve my skills?’”
Similarly, productivity and minimalism YouTuber Nate O’Brien has enjoyed a 200 percent increase in viewership since the start of the pandemic, which he chalks up to people becoming more insular and self-reflective during lockdown: “Spending 24 hours per day in your home makes you realise the importance of organisation and the power of minimalism.”
Elsewhere, YouTubers like Amy Landino offer bright, fun videos on entrepreneurship and side hustles, coaching viewers in the best ways to create and maintain multiple streams of income. “I live in my Google calendar,” she says. “I literally schedule my sleep. Time is a finite resource.”
Doesn’t taking control of literally everything sound appealing, given the world’s current state of chaos? Of course it does – ticking off a to-do list is satisfying and, as psychotherapist Zoe Aston explains, keeping busy ensures our brains are occupied, instead of ruminating over the bad stuff. “Staying productive takes the edge off some of the very difficult and challenging emotions we’re having to cope with right now,” she says. “As a result, stress levels are lowered, we sleep better and feel healthier.”
There are other benefits too – lonely students grappling with online learning turn to school-oriented productivity influencers. “I think the popularity of study content has to do with needing company while learning at home,” says Fatimah, otherwise known as StudyChaii, whose beautiful handwritten notes, essays and bullet journals have earned her 223,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram. “We are so used to working in a real-life classroom setting and being surrounded by so many different people with different perspectives. Such an interactive environment is really motivating, but it's what a lot of students are missing.”
Naturally, not everyone wants – or is able – to live like a tech entrepreneur, and the pandemic productivity influencer boom has come up against criticism. While some YouTubers pivoted towards the niche, Tiffany Ferguson called out the push for productivity. Last year, Tiffany was balancing work and university commitments while dealing with health anxiety. Forcing herself to be productive was the last thing on her mind.
“I have no desire to ‘grind’ 24/7 and exhaust myself,” she says. “I’ve suffered from burnout many times before, so I’ve really tried to actively remove those toxic ‘hustle culture’ ideas from my mind. My focus was just to get through each day, sometimes at a bare minimum.”
In late March last year – around the time that quote about Shakespeare supposedly writing King Lear during the Bubonic plague popped up – Tiffany made a video challenging the onslaught of productive content. “Even though I know my worth isn’t related to my productivity, I often need these reminders,” she says. “I also want to encourage other people to question these ideas, like ‘hustling’ and the culture of overworking ourselves.”
Not everyone clocks that productivity – particularly in relation to work and money-producing activities – does not have to equate to self-worth. The kind of “hustle” culture referenced by Tiffany promotes the idea that lucrative activities are the only sort worthy of your time, and simple pleasures are for time-wasting losers who don’t have the drive for a Dorsey lifestyle. Pre-pandemic, hustle culture felt like it was everywhere – and the rise of productivity influencers could be a sign of its return.
“If we become reliant on our productivity to tell us how much we are worth as a human being, we are going to find it very difficult to maintain a sense of value when we are resting,” argues Zoe Aston, explaining that we need boundaries and balances in place to understand the differences between the things we do. What’s more, focusing on self-optimisation doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else; speaking to the productivity influencers, it’s clear that their ultra-regimented schedules do struggle to account for serendipity, spontaneity or good old fashioned fun.
“There was a time where my audience was actually concerned that my husband and I weren't having enough sex,” Amy admits. Meanwhile Ali says his regimented schedule has thwarted his creative ability, meaning the book he’s writing is coming along slower than expected. It turns out creativity is hard to produce under pressure.
As we wade through yet another lockdown, it’s understandable that people are searching for structure in our otherwise meandering lives. But it’s worth remembering that there’s more to life than ice baths, full G-cals and eating one meal a day.