‘Here I am rethinking my existence’: TikTok’s anti-productivity trend

On the heels of the productivity porn phenomenon in which users brag about routines starting at 5 a.m., new videos embracing laziness and unabashedly contemplating life at a leisurely pace are all the rage

A woman relaxes and rests without giving any thought whatsoever to productivity.
A woman relaxes and rests without giving any thought whatsoever to productivity.

Under the title “A day with me — a realistic routine,” a video on user @merigopsico’s TikTok account shows her looking sleepy as she sits up in bed at 7:30 a.m. as her voiceover says “here, I am rethinking my existence.” We then see her setting up the phone to record the video and getting back into bed (“here, I am showing you what I did previously, which was getting up, setting the phone to record and getting back into bed to record it; [it’s] a bit ridiculous”). In the two-minute clip, we see her having breakfast while staring into the void because she is recording herself and cannot look at her cell phone, which is what she would normally do; doing her hair (“pretty decent, just enough”), walking to the subway (“I put on a podcast so as not to have to listen to my thoughts”), in class, eating (and washing the dishes), in the library studying for exams and, finally, having a beer with friends. “I thought about going to the gym, but I got lazy.”

That video is very different from the TikTok videos and Instagram Reels that show a completely idealized, unrealistic life. The latter feature people who wake up at 5 a.m., exercise, meditate, read and have a neat house; by the time they head to work, they’ve already done a thousand things. María Gómez, the user behind the @merigopsico handle, says that she recorded her video precisely because she was getting fed up with “seeing so many routines that seem unrealistic to me and this excessive productivity throughout the day, where there is no room for rest or leisure. It’s not the routine of a normal person’s work schedule,” she explains.

Maria is not the only one who feels this way and has decided to fight back by recording content that pokes a little fun at all the productivity porn on social media. On TikTok (and, to a lesser degree, on Instagram) there are videos with realistic routines like Gómez’s and other parodies that feature extreme, exaggerated routines (in a video by user @horteraza, she is seen doing push-ups with a book in front of her and a text that indicates that it is 4:10 in the morning. Her voiceover explains: “Then I do three hours of exercise as I take the opportunity to read a few chapters of Don Quixote to activate both body and mind”).

For her part, user @anitatiempolibre uploaded a clip of an interview with Spanish actor and director Fernando Fernán Gómez in which he says: “I am very capable of doing nothing, I am not one of those people who say that they need to be working because they are not fulfilled otherwise. If I had been an heir, I would have been perfectly fine doing nothing.” Other users have taken the same audio and recorded themselves doing a sort of playback with explanations like “me to my boss” or “[me] in a job interview.”

This TikTok trend can be connected to phenomena such as the Great Resignation (people who quit their jobs for mental health reasons) and quiet quitting (doing the bare minimum at work, for those who cannot afford to quit), which both reflect the fact that giving one’s blood, sweat and tears at work is no longer as internalized as it was just a few years ago. Studies and surveys have already detected this attitude; according to Gallup, the commitment of people under 35 to their work has dropped four points compared to before the pandemic. This sentiment is a generational phenomenon and responds to our historical moment.

Psychologist Aurora Gómez, of Corio Psychology, explains that millennials had already started down the road of rethinking their relationship with work as a result of the 2008 crisis, as seen in Spain’s 15-M anti-austerity movement. At that time, and since the Covid-19 pandemic, both sides of the issue were represented on social media — positive psychology combined with productivity and the response that questioned that discourse. However, in the case of Generation Z, that response is connected to the boom in mental health. “All these first-person mental health activists know that productivity is a key factor in causing most of their suffering, because your worth as a person is tied to your productive value… If you are physically or mentally unhealthy, you are not productive and you are no longer valuable as a person. As they identify productivity’s role in their suffering and draw a clear connection between mental health and capitalism, this revival of positive psychology seemed to be a response, a very organic and natural manifestation of what we already knew,” she explains.

It is not a coincidence that these videos appear primarily on TikTok. Sílvia Martínez, the director of the master’s degree program in social media at the Open University of Catalonia (Spain), points out that, to a certain extent, each social media platform has its own personality. “Everything on Instagram seems to be more prepared, there’s a much greater use of filters, photos and very careful images, especially ones that show a utopian life. On TikTok, it’s easier to find nice, funny videos with more realistic content. They use expressions like ‘I can relate’ because they are not showing retouched idyllic images that do not really exist; they show a more normal routine or lifestyle,” she says.

Although one can find this movement against productivity on Instagram as well, in many cases such videos actually first appeared on TikTok; there’s an exchange between platforms that the expert says is common. The coexistence between the two trends is also natural, she adds. “Everyone is always looking to have an aspirational, not perfect, role model.” Watching videos of impossible routines is almost addictive; the other videos remind us that the former does not reflect reality.

The positives of getting off the hamster wheel

In the comments responding to María Gómez’s video, other users thanked her. “Sometimes when I see unrealistic routines, it makes me feel guilty about my productivity,” says one user; “I feel seen,” another user says. María is 25 years old and studied psychology; she just finished the master’s degree she mentioned in the video. She believes that all these videos about non-productivity allow her to shake off the guilt that the other videos cause. “Audiences like to watch these more realistic videos because it reminds them [that productivity porn is not real]. Ultimately, we all know, more or less, that the other [type of video] is not very realistic, but it’s inevitable to feel that guilt, even if you then repeatedly tell yourself: ‘Come on, this is not reality,’” she says.

Aurora Gómez sees this trend of calling productivity into question as a very good thing. “When people get into the dynamics of hyperproductivity — which from the outside seems positive — they are also avoiding [their own thoughts],” she points out. The psychologist adds that she knows that her patients are doing well when they “go to the countryside, without a book, without a cell phone.” That is when I “know that they are fine, because they don’t allow themselves to avoid [their own] thoughts. If negative thoughts appear, they can say to themselves, ‘I have tools to deal with them,’” she explains.

But none of this means that consuming videos that go against toxic productivity (or having previously intuited and understood this discourse) will solve everything. After all, you can just as easily avoid your own thoughts by watching videos about non-productivity on your cell phone as you can with constant activity. But the psychologist does believe that the popularity of these videos means something. She explains that she often has to start with the basics with patients from this generation, but “at the same time they have such a powerful discourse about mental health that it’s like going to teach someone a language and they already have a C1 [language certification]. You have to use other tools. What they lack is [the ability] to put everything they know on a discursive level into practice.” That discourse, the psychologist emphasizes, “does not [come from] a psychologist or philosopher; it is being created by people who suffer from anxiety problems. They have their own discourse, their own memes... It’s really lovely.”

This discourse appears on TikTok and is expressed in other ways elsewhere, such as in optimistic solarpunk science fiction. “It remains to be seen how they put it into action. But I believe that when they want to apply it, they will have a place to do it,” she concludes.

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