It’s the fall of 2020. I’m listening to the steady rhythm of chill lo-fi beats. I can taste the rich flavor of black cold brew and see the sunlight filtering through my blinds. 

I’ve got my flashcards ready to go, and my notes are scattered before me. As I flip through pages of Plato’s Republic, I can’t help but think, “This is the perfect setting to revise for my midterms.” I’ve only got a week before I fail my courses and give up on this altogether. 

Despite all of my impending deadlines and the constant pressure from my workload, university doesn’t seem to feel real. I leave my desk, despite the fact that my Pomodoro timer is signalling that I shouldn’t be on a break for another 17 minutes. The incessant ticking of my phone timer only demotivates me further — even being able to check off three items on my to-do list doesn’t give me a momentary sense of satisfaction. 

I wonder, where am I going wrong? 

Picking up my phone, I switch my timer off and tune into a study-with-me livestream by YouTuber James Scholz. Just like me, hundreds of thousands of viewers have tuned in to find companionship through the stress of online school and work. 

Scholz’s work ethic remained a comfort for me amid the unpredictability of online learning. His audiences have subscribed to his channel because of the dedication he puts into studying for 12 hours every day. Words like ‘growth mindset,’ ‘motivation,’ and ‘drive’ can be found peppered across his videos’ comments sections. Absorbing their energy, I pick up my book and join Scholz as he lounges in his chair pondering over some text on his laptop.

“This is what productivity should look like,” I think to myself as I get back to my readings.

Stuck in a dilemma 

Since the pandemic hit, both work and socialization have become remote, and so have our relationships with our loved ones. 

Canadian students have struggled to balance work, financial concerns, and academics due to continuous disruptions to their course delivery formats and work schedules. According to a study conducted by Statistics Canada, 57 per cent of students reported that they had experienced a disruption in their courses or work placements due to delays and cancellations related to the pandemic. 

Additionally, the study highlighted that, when compared to pre-pandemic graduates, twice as many current prospective graduates reported that they were unable to complete their degrees due to the impacts of the pandemic.

Considering all that, should you prioritize productivity or simply step back and care for yourself? In a perfect world, students could find a balance between academic responsibilities and their well-being that would allow them to thrive holistically. 

In my case, this dilemma simply brought my hustle to a halt. I was unable to prioritize my health or my work. The perpetual guilt of not being productive enough quickly began to have a detrimental impact on my mental health. 

A double-edged sword

Social media quickly became a double-edged sword for me, acting as both a tool to improve productivity and a distraction from my everyday life. Social media can inspire people to obtain new skills and to improve their work ethic, but for U of T student Labiba Rahman, the same platforms quickly became detrimental. 

Rahman started her first year of university within the four walls of her bedroom. As she repeated the motions of online schooling, never stepping outside her house, she found herself spending her days in a blur. 

Social media started off as a source of comfort, offering stories of students in the same boat as her and providing a positive perspective on a generally negative situation. But despite these positive interactions, Rahman felt a gap between herself and the individuals she engaged with.

“I knew that we were on the same boat that way, but at the same time I knew that they were able to get a grip of [remote learning] much faster than I was,” Rahman said in an interview with The Varsity.

The nature of online learning has impacted the mental health of students across Canada. According to a study by the Canadian Psychological Association, many students without any pre-existing mental health conditions reported that they experienced reduced mental wellness and an increase in psychological distress during the pandemic. 

The detrimental impact that the pandemic has had on student life, including isolation and a lack of in-person human interaction, has left many students mentally exhausted and unable to engage with any of the goals they had set for themselves.

Rahman isn’t alone in turning to social media to find support. The millions of viewers that tune into the YouTube channels of ‘productivity influencers’ are also probably looking for companionship during this period of isolation.   

The rise of productivity influencers

For students, social media and productivity can be deeply interlinked, and platforms like YouTube provide endless role models who can inspire you to boost your productivity. Much like Scholz, ‘study-with-me’ creators across YouTube cater to various study preferences for study backdrops — from videos with calm rainy moods and lo-fi music, to creators that work in libraries with no music at all. 

The rise in popularity of productivity influencers, especially during the pandemic, may be linked to the lack of human connection and isolation most students have experienced within the last year. But, in my view, this boost in popularity signals more than just a need for human connection.

Why is it that when the whole world was shutting down, students felt the pressure to keep going full steam ahead with their careers? The rise of productivity influencers and the increase in their audience sizes are symptoms of a greater problem that shows how guilty our society feels about slowing down — about being ‘unproductive.’

Perhaps the sharp increase in the support for productivity influencers during the pandemic isn’t surprising. Student employment has fallen from 52.5 per cent to 29.8 per cent, so students are struggling with finding work to support themselves and finance their education. Now more than ever, it makes sense that they’d seek ways to be productive.

While there are influencers who promote toxic ‘hustle culture’ and ‘grinding’ 24/7, this isn’t usually the case for study-with-me channels. Hustle culture involves promoting a lifestyle focused on being successful, and often pushes sentiments like “work hard in silence and let success make the noise.” On the other hand, study-with-me channels focus on creating an atmosphere of companionship while encouraging extended sessions of focused studying. Unfortunately, study-with-me channels implicitly promote that toxic work ethic in a more casual, less obvious manner, and both can quickly lead to mental and emotional burnout.

To me, the consistent hustling of these influencers fosters a lifestyle that — perhaps unknowingly — caters to the same rhetoric that plagues hustle culture. After all, if these creators are able to work, study, and focus for 12 hours a day, why can’t I do the same?

Setting yourself up for failure

Recently, as online classes wrapped up for the day, I found myself scrolling through endless Instagram posts as a means to unwind and avoid thinking of the next item on my to-do list. These days, work seems suffocating; even the slightest bit of procrastination sends waves of guilt and anxiety through my bones. Every moment that I fail to be productive, I have an incessant creeping sensation that I’m falling behind. 

I paused my scrolling for a moment. Would you look at that; Britney Spears is finally free of her conservatorship. And Janet from middle school learned to bake banana bread. 

At least someone did something useful today.

It’s human nature to compare your lifestyle with the people you interact with in your everyday life. Because of social media, our social spheres now include seemingly more intimate interactions with influencers and celebrities: we think we know them even when we don’t. We may find ourselves making self-comparisons with those who are no longer a relevant part of our social sphere — like Janet — or who are in a completely different socio-economic sphere altogether — like Britney Spears. 

These seemingly harmless interactions often have negative consequences due to the formation of ‘parasocial relationships’ — a phenomenon originally defined as “an illusion of face to face relationships with a performer.” The social comparisons that result from these parasocial relationships often lead to ordinary individuals often setting unattainable and harmful goals for themselves, which can take the form of fitness goals, relationship goals, or even — in the case of hustle culture — productivity goals.

I commend the dedication that study-with-me creators put into consistently hosting livestreams that can be anywhere from three to 12 hours long. However, viewers tuning into these streams often form a work routine that depends on these streams. They may begin to look forward to interacting with these creators and often feel deep connections with any messages they might share.

Now, due to the presence of social media, these illusory parasocial relationships have only become more personally impactful. A research study found that adolescents who had received a Twitter reply, mention, or retweet from a celebrity they followed displayed signs of stronger parasocial relationships than if they hadn’t interacted with the celebrity online. This suggests that the interactions that we have with people’s online personalities can have very real consequences on our perceived relationships with them.

These parasocial relationships can easily fuel viewers to adopt goals and lifestyle changes that are not particularly sustainable. In my case, adopting the 12-hour studying habits of influencers like Scholz while doing university full-time and working two jobs was simply not possible. Nowadays, I often have to take a step back from using social media in order to prevent these comparisons from sending my mental health into a spiral.

It’s okay to take a break

As online learning continued into the winter term, Rahman found herself struggling to put her phone away and to separate her productivity from her social media use. Her phone provided a distraction that quickly consumed hours of her day.

“Everyone was just on their phone, especially after quarantine, because no one had anything to do… So I feel like it was a shift trying to go back into the mindset and routine of being able to study properly,” shared Rahman.

The transition to online university and work was difficult for most individuals, and while social media is meant to provide connection, in practice, it often increases this isolation. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that limiting social media use significantly reduced participants’ loneliness and depression over the span of three weeks. Simply monitoring how much time you spend on social media can reduce your anxiety and fear of missing out on events.

The stress resulting from not meeting the standards of others within our social circles continues to cause our mental health to deteriorate. When that stress is combined with the unattainable goals we set for ourselves based on toxic hustle culture, any semblance of work-life balance which we try to establish inevitably crumbles.

Still, Rahman has managed to find a silver lining to the whole situation. Armed with an increased awareness of her social media consumption, Rahman has changed her perspective on productivity and success. 

“Before I would say, you know what, being a doctor would mean I’m successful. But then I realized if you’re setting these limitations on yourself or these extreme conditions of success, then you’re never really going to be happy. So right now, for me, success would be more about who I want to be as a person and if I’m able to do that every day,” said Rahman.

When it comes to building a healthy relationship with social media and work, I believe that a balance is possible. However, such a balance requires us to distance ourselves from social media and to reflect on the kind of expectations we set for ourselves every day. 

What it all comes down to

While social media can provide a valuable source of support and inspiration in our daily lives, it has the ability to warp our understanding of our own reality. Trying to keep up with hustle culture and constantly working yourself to the bone will have long-term consequences on your physical and mental health. On the other hand, setting realistic goals will help us all reach our aspirations in a healthy manner, while rewarding us for the time we’ve spent growing.

I deeply appreciate all the content made by study-with-me creators and by other influencers who share their healthy studying habits. However, as students, we must be critical of the messages this kind of content sends and the implications they have on our sense of self-worth. We need to be more aware about our social media consumption to keep it from impacting our ability to perform at work and unwind outside of it.

Students deserve to be able to prioritize both their work and their well-being. While academic pressure will remain a part of our lives, we can mitigate some of its stress by factoring in time for relaxation. Creating space to build good relationships with ourselves and with the people we love will only help us perform better and value the time we spend working.

So, in the end, constant productivity isn’t everything. If you’ve had a long week, consider this your chance to take a well-deserved break — both from your work and from your phone.