Twenty-five minutes of work, five minutes of break: Meet the productivity ninjas who obsess over time planning
Working all of the time has become an aspirational quality, idealized and romanticized on social media, and a trophy requiring discipline, inspiration, rituals and leaders
“I live in my Google Calendar, scheduling even my sleeping hours because time is a finite resource.” So says Amy Landino, planner, time sorceress and queen of the “Pomodoro Technique.” She has more than 401,000 followers on YouTube, people who want to learn how to get the most out of the 24 hours we are given every day, through the organization and mastery of tools and apps to optimize and fill each box on Google Calendar. A sort of fear of empty space full of different notifications that should lead them to the new nirvana: productivity. Amy reaches for a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (the pomodoro) and sets the clock: 25 minutes of work and full concentration, five minutes of break. Repeat four times.
No one can say for sure exactly when productivity began to have such a spiritual dimension. It was February 2019 when Erin Griffith wrote in The New York Times: “Perhaps we’ve all gotten a little hungry for meaning. Participation in organized religion is falling, especially among American millennials.” The article in question was titled: “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” A pandemic later, we’ve reached 2022 with productivity becoming an aspirational quality, idealized and romanticized on social media, a trophy requiring discipline, inspiration, rituals and leaders.
The long, unstructured days of lockdown brought nostalgia for discipline and schedules, opening the door to a new niche of influencers: the productivity ninjas, Excel czars and Notion bosses. With millions of students alone in their bedrooms without schedules or boundaries between leisure and obligations, productivity influencers became spiritual leaders mapping unstructured lives on Google Calendar and pastel-coded notes on which courses and study were planned; but also with lists of TV shows, books and matcha teacups consumed to boost concentration. You can find them on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, and they are all creators seducing their audiences with content focused on a specific productivity app, discovering its shortcuts, tricks and formulas. They are a powerful part of the productivity software and workflows ecosystem, whose estimated market worth will be nearly $103 billion (€93.2 billion) in 2027, according to a report by Grand View Research, Inc.
It’s the gamification of labor, where the pressure for output is exhilarating because it’s tangible and trackableLee Humphreys, Professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University
Oksana Yakymchuk is 25 and calls herself “Mrs Excel” on TikTok. She lives in Alicante, on Spain’s east coast, and knows everything there is to know about the spreadsheet problem. “I’m self-taught and learned to optimize my spreadsheets by 500%. I’m in love with Excel and there is nothing that pleases me more than seeing the look on people’s faces every time I show them shortcuts,” she says over the phone. She explains she has always enjoyed saving time. “Productivity is in my veins, I’ve always been math-oriented and hyper-organized,” she acknowledges. Her single-theme TikTok account has 708,000 followers forming part of the micro-universe encompassed in #productivityTok. There, the most adorable are the studyblrs, a combination of the words “study” and “Tumblr.” They have managed to idealize productivity and exhaustion, paying as much attention to color coordination on their calendars and notes, as to the fulfillment of their scheduled activities. Work exalts them and showing off their exhaustion after 15 hours of self-burnout makes them feel like meritocratic demigods. Tutorials, self-help infographics and motivational quotes inspire impressionable teenagers who compete to reach their limits of exhaustion. Some observers of this phenomenon predict that this is where the next generation of workaholics will emerge. “It’s the gamification of labor, where the pressure for output is exhilarating because it’s tangible and trackable,” says Lee Humphreys, Professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University.
Humphreys believes that it is more about appearing productive than actually being productive. The Cornell professor cites via email a concept coined in 1948 by the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld known as narcotizing dysfunction, which describes how media create a false sense of action in us. “When people know or read a lot about something, or simply watch others work hard, they tend to think that just by watching, they are already engaging in such activity in the same way.” According to the professor, consuming self-improvement content on social media confuses audiences into thinking they are actively learning how to cook, study or manage their time.
The illusion of control created by full calendar schedules is an antidote to the uncertainty that has had an impact on a generation that has recently emerged from a pandemic, only to be surprised by a war. They find their comfort against chaos by staying busy and immersing themselves in the so-called hustle culture, the glorification of being (or seeming to be) busy. “The hustle culture should be understood as the response of younger people toward economic uncertainty. Many of these hyper-structured videos and spreadsheets probably feed into their existential fears,” Humphreys points out. In the hustle culture, everything is an inspiration to keep working, even self-care, leisure or sports, which are seen as tools to reset and be more productive.
Those who worship productivity are also digital natives and slaves to distraction. According to Michael Posner, a professor at the University of Oregon, each time you are interrupted, it takes on average around 23 minutes to recover your previous level of concentration. Focus is an aspirational attribute for Generation Z, which remains scarce, expensive and difficult. It is not uncommon for them to be into “excelmania,” or to get dopamine rushes once a to-do list is completed.
Feelings of incompetence
A studyblr renegade shared in their blog how, after several months of being immersed in that TikTok universe, their self-esteem became tied to productivity and the design of pastel-colored boards and notes. “Personally, the constant consumption of work and productivity content triggered feelings of incompetence within me. As someone highly valuing visual stimuli, I felt my notes had to meet a perfect standard of design with a clear and concise flow of information. The actual fact of learning was in the background.”
Tracy Brower, sociologist and author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work (2021), states that the obsession around productivity usually narrows our vision, and can actually become very demotivating. “Hyper-focus adds pressure and is extremely paralyzing,” she says. Besides, it leaves no room for chance, serendipity or creativity; everything that creativity expert Natalie Nixon refers to as “invisible work.” “Precisely the part of the process that remains incalculable, and that doesn’t emerge in meetings or Zoom calls. It includes observing, listening, being intuitive, procrastinating, thinking, asking oneself out-of-context questions, and framing reality again and again.” For her, this is the only human job that will survive in the fourth industrial revolution. And it probably will not be able to be scheduled on Google Calendar either.