I realized it in late April: I am about to be at home for a very long time. Having spent a month doing coursework mostly on my bed, I decide I need to set up a desk environment — so I remove all the papers from my never-really-used desk, move it to face the window, and order a monitor, keyboard, and mouse from Best Buy.
I am looking up ergonomic desk setup tutorials on YouTube when I see a thumbnail featuring a huge, curved screen in my sidebar recommendations. I click on it. The video, by a British physician named Ali Abdaal, is titled "My Productivity Desk Setup" and has over one million views. It is fascinating — it features a 49-inch 5K monitor ($1500) with a mount that makes it appear to float in midair, a desk that changes its height with a press of a button, a stool designed so that you must engage your core to stay upright, and a mini palm tree. The setup is ridiculous and excessive and beautiful, and I cannot stop listening to Ali Abdaal’s commentary — “I’ve been fantasizing about, you know, having the perfect desk since I was five years old,” he says — as he goes through item after item that I will never purchase. I’m confused by why I’m watching this, but I can’t stop.
After watching this first video, I go on his channel, which, according to his banner, focuses on the broad themes of “Productivity, Tech, Lifestyle.” I click on video after video as he talks about his seven note-taking apps and tells me how to study, how to get better at investing, how to type faster, and as he puts it, how to stop being a “complete wasteman.”
This is how, in the early phases of the pandemic, I stumble upon the productivity side of YouTube. Over the last seven months, I have somehow found myself spending more time watching videos that tell me how to optimize my life — how to take notes, stack habits, sleep better, focus on work — than ever before.
YouTubers of this genre call it “self development,” and the three main people that seem to dominate it are Thomas Frank, Ali Abdaal, and Matt D’Avella. Their videos have titles like “A Day in the Life of a Minimalist” and “How to Wake up Before 6am Every Day” to “How I Take notes on my iPad Pro in medical school” to “How to Stop Being TIRED All The Time.”
The titles are clickbait, but the content is reasonable. Thomas Frank’s advice for being less tired is what your mom would tell you: Get enough sleep, go outside, exercise, drink less coffee, drink more water. Matt D’Avella tells you that to stop procrastinating, you should tell yourself that you’ll work on the task for thirty minutes; often, he says, you’ll unconsciously work on it for more than thirty minutes, and sometimes the momentum will lead you to finish the task altogether.
Some of these tips feel self explanatory, but the reasons they give aren’t. In fact, all of the advice relies on the assumption that we tend to overestimate our ability to make good judgments for ourselves — like how much we are inclined to procrastinate or misestimate the amount of sleep we really need. The YouTube videos, many of which are sourced from pop psychology books like “Atomic Habits” by James Clear or “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, tell us how to trick our brains so that they function the way we want them to function, neatly packaged into a ten-minute video. All we have to do is watch these short videos to become, as Ali Abdaal puts it, “happier, healthier, and more productive versions of ourselves.”
Even though I’m not usually embarrassed by my consumption habits (I recently sent my friends a photo of a bed captioned “my hotel in Wyoming has these Wyoming shaped pillows”), nothing feels quite as bad as watching these YouTube videos.
There is something about watching self-development content that feels embarrassing, even though I know it shouldn’t be. When I watch a video called “How to Make Yourself Study when you have ZERO motivation,” I feel like I’ve lost my autonomy: my ability to figure things out for myself, to turn around difficult moments independently.
I still find myself feeling this way, even though I thought I had already learned my lesson freshman fall — when I turned in incomplete problem sets because I didn’t know it was normal to ask for help. I thought I learned that over-valuing one’s autonomy, even in our ultra individualistic society, is an extremely naive thing to do.
During the pandemic, I’ve found myself more and more open to this type of content — people on the internet telling me how to do things I previously thought I did just fine myself — than before.
Perhaps it’s because, over the past few months, I’ve been acutely aware of what the words “autonomy” and “freedom” mean, how the feeling of autonomy doesn’t always coincide with the actual possession of it. Some people refuse to wear masks in public places because they want their “autonomy,” their freedom to do what they want to do. But isn’t real autonomy the freedom from being infected with COVID-19 when you go grocery shopping, and the freedom from infecting your family, too?
Maybe I hesitate when YouTube videos with clickbait titles designed to drive up ad revenue tell me what to do. But I spent most of April frustrated at how hard it was to do the things I really wanted to do — instead, I doomscrolled through the news on Twitter for hours, lost the ability to respond to messages in socially acceptable time frames, read fiction instead of working on my schoolwork, became weeks behind on problem sets. It felt as if the constant news cycle and being home 24/7 reset years of acquired knowledge on maintaining executive function. I tried all of my previous strategies for getting back on track, but they weren’t sufficient anymore.
Foregoing guidance because you want to feel self-sufficient is not real autonomy — real autonomy is instead the ability to choose what you want to do with your time, and follow through with it. I know I didn’t have real autonomy over my time in April. Was it really that bad to watch a few ten-minute videos that would help me wrest back control of my own time, my own life, so I could spend my time the way I wanted to?
What keeps me watching, however, is the curious entertainment value of these videos.
The difference between pop psychology books (which I have also read in large quantities) and pop psychology YouTube is that YouTube lets you see people try things on themselves in real time, like when Matt D’Avella spends 30 days taking only cold showers. The idea of cold showers, he says, is getting over something called the “flinch”: the “moments when you shrink up before a big moment,” he says. The “flinch” that you have right before getting into a cold shower is analogous to the flinch you have right before speaking to a large audience or having a difficult conversation with your partner. “You need to build up a habit of seeing the flinch and going forward, not rationalizing your fear and stepping away,” he says.
And so he films his face as he steps in the shower each day, giving commentary in between clips. One day, he measures the water temperature. “Had to see how cold this shit really is,” he says. “This shit’s got to be 40 degrees. I got a cooking thermometer right now, I’m going to do an actual test.” The water is actually 61 degrees.
“I think it’s broken; there’s probably something wrong,” he jokes.
Each YouTube video is like a small experiment; you either watch other people conduct it or are given the necessary steps to conduct it on yourself. I suspect this is why these productivity YouTubers got into productivity in the first place, given their rejection of the belief that you must constantly be productive (they’re all really into work-life balance and taking breaks) and their relative openness about their own selves.
Matt D’Avella has a video about his anxiety, where he admits that it’s a lot harder to talk about ongoing difficulties than past difficulties he’s overcome. Ali Abdaal has enough followers for companies to send him a free $1500 monitor to feature in his videos, but in his “What’s On My iPhone 11 Pro Max” video, he shows us his Hinge and Tinder profiles for us to critique. “I’m still single, so I need all the help I can get,” he says.
Like cooking, about which there is a seemingly infinite number of YouTube videos, productivity is another experiment. There is a wide range of tools you can use to feel more in control of your life, and it is fun to try all of them to find the one that works best for you: from the trusty strategy of distancing yourself from your phone as much as possible to avoid using it during the day, to new note-taking apps that encourage “networked thought,” to time-tracking software, to the absurdities of a $1500 monitor (it turns out that apparently large screens make you more productive).
When you are deprived of real human interaction at home, when your day-to-day has been the same for seven months, it is fun to watch people on the internet live their lives in ways that are so irrelevant to yours. When you’ve spent your nth hour on your bed watching TikToks, it is comforting to know that there are proven ways for you to stop and that people on the internet will show you how to do it. When the pandemic has wrenched away control of your life, it is soothing to watch “Study With Me - A Super Productive Day”; perhaps the veneer of someone exercising control over their lives (“at 8 a.m. I decide to stop being a complete wasteman and get up to start the day”) shows you that maybe you can take back your autonomy, and do what they do, too.
I’ve noticed that now, in late October, I don’t really watch these videos anymore. Personal development content on YouTube may have been another one of my random periodic hobbies, like online coffee forums or watching political ads from years ago. I get really into something, and once I exhaust enough of the content, move on.
It turns out that I do have much more control over my time now than I did in April. It’s unclear how much the actual content in these videos contributed, but I did enjoy how entertaining they were, and I no longer feel bad for watching them. Maybe that’s enough. I’m never going to willingly spend 30 days taking cold showers, after all, but I didn’t think that the purpose of that video was to make us copy him anyway.
In a way, it all still seems trivial. Despite what effective altruists might say, it’s hard to listen to people telling me to focus on self development — and it feels selfish to even think about it — when over a million people have died in the past seven months from COVID-19. But I still ended up consuming this content, and probably still will, to some extent, in the future, and I am not sure why. Maybe it is for the entertainment value, maybe because of the fascinating and almost scientific way some people try to optimize their own lives, or the pop psychology of it all. But in a time where everything is uncertain, why wouldn’t you want to listen to someone tell you what to do, promising a better, more fulfilling life if you follow along?
— Staff writer Alicia M. Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @aliciamchen.