Productivity Videos Are A Guide To Surviving The Content Factories
Why Productivity and Motivation #Content Is A Political Project Too.
First off - thank you to everyone who read the first edition of the rebooted newsletter, and messaged with thoughts on Leftist politics and Crypto futures. It’s a subject I am very keen to get back to once I’ve done some more reading and interviews, but I am glad I wasn’t one of only a few who thought the problem presented was significant. Once again, I’m very keen to try make this as collaborative a space as possible, so please feel free to comment, message, DM and Email. And, if you haven’t, please do consider subscribing so you don’t miss future editions of the newsletter.
One of the staples of my Youtube recommendations is the growing genre of ‘productivity’ content. You have probably encountered them in the past couple of years. Matt D’Avella’s Productivity Guide to Life, Thomas Frank’s endless collections of app driven, automation hacks, or any video from Ali Abdaal.
I started watching these videos, nearly religiously, a few years ago. At the time, I had a demanding day job as a digital journalist/content writer, I was trying to research and write a book, all while navigating a tricky, and sometimes volatile, personal life. All in all, I was looking for a semblance of balance, fully internalising the abundance of criticism being thrown my way : that I wasn’t organised enough, that I wasn’t productive enough, and crucially, I wasn’t efficient enough. It’s incredibly easy to buy into these messages - ones that liken time efficiency to the peak of personal optimisation and consider missing a deadline to also be akin to moral failure. And it’s no surprise that the online content stream that has emerged out of these conditions exploit this collective affect- presenting the idea that balance is formulaic, simply requiring a few tweaks and modifications, a change in diet, the development of habits that include a lot of cognitive and physiological tracking (at one point during my book writing process, I spent a month trying to calculate the optimal time to sleep in line with my circadian rhythm, only to then repeatedly fail at shutting down at this time due to anxious thoughts).
In spite of how many productivity videos I’ve watched and methods I’ve attempted to imitate, I’ve never quite been able to get there. Yet, I still go back to them regularly - in part, because Youtube keeps recommending these videos to me (and, because they’re so replicable that muting channels just results in promoting imitators), but also because it’s one of the few genres of easily accessible content that does exude some image of an optimistic future. Sure, these videos are heavily stylised and acutely edited, they utilise, cynically, particular colour palettes and formats to project lifestyle content that most viewers will never be able to access. But I don’t think that matters all too much. Because, these videos aren’t really there to present a coherent and cohesive management system, and I’m not entirely convinced that their creators expect it to be used as long-term guides to life. Instead, they are better off being considered in the same genre as superhero movies, and more specifically, the feeling one gets in the immediate aftermath of watching these films. That feeling - even fleeting- that entertains the idea that if only the conditions were different, and I lived in Tony Stark’s libertarian corporate world, I would also be able to defeat its enemies, very easily in fact, and while I’m at it, I’d get the girl too.
I watch productivity videos, not because I’m under any illusion that after watching them, I’ll figure out that my calendar system needed a special plug in, or I needed a new acronym to manage my tasks, or that the solution all along was to outsource more work to other precarious gig workers on Fiverr.
I continue to watch them because, for fleeting moments, they make me feel that minor personal changes might make me happier. That, they can lead to a radically different experience of an otherwise deteriorating world that occupies my mind most of the time. Becoming more “systems-driven” (as one productivity influencer recommends) and goal orientated, I have the power to avoid the worst of the destruction that, not only is completely out of my hands anyway, but is also inevitable.
I’m not sure how much this genre of content is worth (some estimate its in the multi-millions and I wouldn’t be surprised if its a lot higher), but one thing I have been thinking about is why it’s so prevalent, particularly among the more right-leaning areas of YouTube, and other platforms. There are countless articles on productivity and ‘hustle’ content across platforms like Youtube and TikTok that are either outright scams or exploiting the financially vulnerable, not least because so much of the advice given seems to have some kind of crypto element to it, or are thinly veiled ads for stocks & shares platforms.
Less attention has been paid to the productivity and lifestyle content, which, in my view, informs the ideological framework that financial tech companies in particular, can utilise in order to exploit young people in financially precarious conditions. It’s all well and good to suggest people not follow financial advice on TikTok, or get involved in Drop shipping schemes or dump their savings into a new crypto coin, but this advice falls flat if you can’t tell a young person - someone who is far less likely to secure a moderately secure job than previous generations, who is very unlikely to own any material assets let alone be able to start a family - why the less risky option would be better for them. Productivity and Hustle content, while not promising riches and bounty (because they legally can’t) counter this with a more optimistic narrative: With enough tweaks, modifications, body hacking and system- thinking, you can prove the naysayers wrong. You can push through the arbitrary restrictions that so much of the world already places on you.
I find these videos interesting for a few reasons. First, is that most of the creators that show up in my feed are in their late teens and early twenties - the Zoomer generation who haven’t just lost faith in electoral politics, but for the most part, in democracy itself. Anecdotally speaking, most of the Zoomers in my life have no real interest in party politics, not because it goes beyond them intellectually, but because they’ve broadly accepted that there’s no existing political arrangement that would benefit them or their lives, and, even if they have progressive stances on the majority of issues, they can’t really imagine what an alternative political system would look like. It might be one reason why Hustle and Grind content tends to be popular - to the viewer, it acknowledges a situation where everyone has to have side hustles, investments in stock spreads, NFTs, as well as their own Youtube Channels and Podcasts that document their investments and teach others how to do it as well (ie. through skill share classes). Productivity content acknowledges and accepts the futility of attempting systemic political change, embraces the cynical position that collective politics is impossible, and provides strategies to viewers on how to navigate the world they’re forced to live in. In simpler terms, most productivity content argues that if we all have to live in Hell, here’s how you can avoid the worst of it. Sometimes that will mean having enough passive income for a couple of nice meals a week. In other cases, it’ll be ensuring you get at least 6 hours of sleep and a meditation cycle in.
The second reason - purely on a content level - is the ubiquity of productivity content, and what it suggests about the future of the content economy. In the years I’ve been watching this content - as an attempt to ‘regain’ control of my life- I have noticed that while the video quality of this content has gotten better (creators going beyond the ring light, to professional cinema cameras, full lighting rigs, green screens, more drone footage for B-Roll), the ‘advice’ given, hasn’t really changed all that much; For tech enthusiasts, the keys will always be management software like Notion, Evernote, Scrivner. For time management, try one of the million Pomodoro apps. Have you ever tried listening to a lo-fi beats playlist in the background? Or put on a “work with me” video? Maybe if you want to take a technology detox, consider a Bullet Journal?
This is not to say the advice isn’t valuable to particular individuals, or that they don’t contain any useful advice. But we should look beyond its proposed functionality, and consider this as a genre of content in and of itself - where the ‘service’ is broadly interchangeable, ephemeral and disposable- its determined value dependent on similar content continuing to be produced for reaffirmation. It’s not that dissimilar to fitness videos. Youtube is filled with the same versions of ‘Booty-Buster’ home workouts, particularly after the pandemic, which has meant that for many fitness influencers, the workout itself is a component of commercial branding - ie. that these workouts end up being ads for influencer merchandise. In the same way that there isn’t a definitive Booty-Buster workout, and that it’s actually really hard to figure out how to set up a workout schedule that isn’t linked to a commercial branding apparatus, there will never be a definitive productivity video. Indeed, this would be antithetical to how the content economy actually works, and its broader dependence on the production of new content to affirm the value of what already exists.
There are easy critiques of productivity content, of course - that they aestheticise overworking, that they promote and sometimes even celebrate gig economy labour, or that they by and large propose individualistic solutions that obfuscate, and even reject, any conception of labour as a collective class. That being said, I don’t believe creators should be blamed for perpetuating this - not least because for the most part, they are simply following the incentives set by the platform technologies that have created the precarious economy we now find ourselves in; the productivity Youtubers really are just trying to describe an environment that the vast majority of young people are inevitably heading toward. Indeed, the continual reproduction of this content seems to reinforce this future ‘creator economy’ of accelerated gig work and round-the-clock content production and consumption, not just as inevitable, but increasingly essential. Perhaps, if we are all to end up in a future where we are expected to make content for platforms, it might be worth investing in a Pomodoro app after all.
Thanks for reading The Draft Folder ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.