Aesthetic productivity: beyond picture-perfect notes

October 21, 2020

Article by Gian de Guzman and Bea Sancio
Art by Julian Paderes

What does productivity look like? To some, it could be as simple as a page lined with lists of boxes finally ticked off. To others, it could be as complex as cursive notes, written on a dotted notebook, highlighted with pastel colors.

Productivity, with the rise of social media, is what one could call a growing trend. Instagram influencers often share beautiful photos of their study spaces, often pictured is a clean desk facing a window for natural sunlight, with succulents and vintage trinkets to top them off. On YouTube, “study with me” videos have been on the rise. In these videos, they share some tips, while flaunting the newest iPad Pro and their complete set of stationery materials.

If we could boil down this phenomenon into a single phrase, it would be “aesthetic productivity.” 

The rise of this new trend poses many questions like, “Why is making productivity aesthetically pleasing such a big deal?” and “Why do we buy into it in the first place?”

What keeps people hooked

Interviews with study bloggers and vloggers have told us that they want to ease loneliness that comes with studying alone. But, when we scroll through YouTube comments, you’d find that not everyone actually studies after spending 20 minutes—sometimes, even a full hour—of idly watching someone else do so. This isn’t necessarily bad, as the current times and personal responsibilities have made studying a challenge. Still, it’s worth noting why viewers stream study vlogs without actualizing their academic goals. 

Apart from the motivation provided by this type of content, the aesthetic elements make the student audience engaged in someone else’s studying experience. The colorful, organized, and excellently eligible notes are a notable feature in study vlogs. Other details like ambient music and handwriting ASMR make it feel like the vlogger, also our fellow student, isn’t typing up a paper that will make or break their semester. 

These vibrant, fun-filled academic streaks of color paint a scene to us outsiders and fellow students that academics can be calming and fun; that it’s not a tedious process that we’re so used to. 

In itself, though, aesthetic productivity isn’t that simple. Constructing a workspace is already time-consuming, and so is planning its layout and aesthetics. After this, it takes effort to neatly lay journals, pens, and highlighters together on a desk while ensuring that the camera can also capture their cute DIY calendar. 

Post-processing is no easy feat either. These content creators also keep in mind the lighting of the room, scheduling their study period on golden hours. This is so they could post the great photos of their study. According to them, natural light is the best filter a photo could get. If nature couldn’t cooperate, they use artificial filters as an alternative. 

The calligraphic notes, colorful graphs, and detailed anatomy figures also aren’t works of magic. These are done with care and done by hand, taking hours to days to complete. Whether the product is worth it will be discussed later. But, the outcome is most often far from the boring, usual formats of textbooks and students’ source materials. After all, the script or cursive fonts these content creators use are a breath of fresh air from the formal, academic serifs and sans-serifs.

Aside from soothing visuals, content creators use ambient music and ASMR to give off a calm, yet engaging vibe. Music has been found to keep our brain’s attention. Soit can transform otherwise dull things like writing and studying into something more immersive. 

These aesthetic elements make the product and process appear more satisfying to viewers. Even more so when we think that it’s a student like us behind these moodboards. But, why does this academic garnish seem unattainable?  

The other side of aesthetic productivity

While aesthetic productivity has its benefits, there is no mistaking that it can breed toxic habits and worse, perpetuate inaccessible and unjust systems.

On the surface-level, some may find that maintaining the “prettiness” of the way you write your notes can actually become an excuse to procrastinate. Rather than exhausting your time into actually trying to understand what you’re writing, you spend hours ensuring that what you’re studying is actually presentable.

While color-coordinated notes are great to look at, it could easily transform into a distraction. This priority placed on the aesthetic drives away from the point of taking down notes in the first place: to comprehend information. 

Even more so, the “study community” in itself could become a spiral in which we find ourselves lurking in the corners of the Internet instead of studying. We think that by watching these people study, we are achieving a semblance of productivity. There is a term for this phenomenon: narcotizing dysfunction. In its essence, narcotizing dysfunction entails that when we spend more time consuming information, the less likely we are to actually take real-life action. This is why the more we scroll through productivity related posts, the lesser the chances of us putting these productivity tips into action.

More alarmingly, another pitfall of aesthetic productivity is how the people who endorse this lifestyle end up using and promoting the same products. There is a common trend in these “study with me” vlogs and posts. You would not be surprised to find an Apple gadget (most likely an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil to match), a Leuchtturm1917 bullet journal, Muji pens, and a full set of pastel Zebra Mildliners.

Many of these productivity influencers have been criticized for being “sell-outs.” Some would even go as far as to say that one could only become a successful study vlogger if you own these items.

Furthermore, these products are not at all cheap. The question of access is brought to the table. Not everyone can afford to buy into the aesthetic productivity trend. Not everyone has the luxury of time nor the resources to put effort into beautifying the way they study. 

If we were to look at the whole notion of aesthetic productivity with critical eyes, there is no doubt that it is a mechanism for specific brands to gain more traction. Even more frighteningly, it leads its audiences into believing that productivity can only be “worth something” when a tangible and beautiful output is formed out of it. This is a standard that some may even deem unattainable. 

Perhaps the greatest pitfall of this trend for all students is the toll it can take on one’s mental health. Now that everyone has a social media account where they can showcase how productive they are, or how organized their study tables look, there is a need to fit in. The growing pressure to work hard and strive for a semblance of self-improvement continues to burden students. 

Especially with online learning in place, wherein students are encouraged to learn “at their own pace,” seeing your fellow students accomplish things, not just faster but also “prettier,” is more discouraging than it is inspiring. 

Something to ponder on

Isn’t it ironic how “aesthetic productivity” has a demotivating effect, when its original intention was to motivate students? 

While it is very human to be pleased by aesthetic, it is just as human to choose to question its surrounding issues. Why do we buy into aesthetic productivity? Does it benefit us more than it does harm? Is it helpful or destructive?

The next time our eyes land on the pops of pastel highlighter color on our social media feeds, we can now take a step back and ponder on how it affects us—before we get carried away by its allure. 


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