Optimization Smackdown: Hustle Porn vs. Zen Porn

This story is part of a series on how we make time—from productivity hacks and long walks to altering the function of our own circadian clocks.

Melody Wilding’s hair had started falling out. Her heart fluttered wildly in her chest even in moments of calm, and on the weekends she felt too drained to get out of bed. “I was 20 years old,” she says, “but I felt 70.” The problem wasn’t depression or disease or anything pharmaceutically fixable. It was burnout: a totalizing exhaustion created by Wildling’s self-described “typical type A, overachiever personality” and its hyperdisciplined fixation on productivity. Her mind told her to do more, but her body had had enough.

The quest for self-optimization has long consumed tech culture, where it’s been used to justify everything from gulping down nootropics to ceding control of your home to Alexa. But it’s breaking beyond those bounds to become a philosophical concern of the internet at large, with its own set of ethics and aesthetics. In general, self-optimization enthusiasts consume one of two strains of “porn” (webspeak for any imagery you can’t stop looking at). One is what Alexis Ohanian has called “hustle porn,” a tireless celebration of peak performance. The other might be dubbed “zen porn,” lifestyles and sceneries Marie Kondo’d down to their essentials. Between these two competing sensibilities, wellness-obsessed performance addicts spend their days staring at idealized portraits of the values they imagine for themselves—as supplied by the influencer gurus of Instagram, Reddit, and YouTube.

It’s unclear whether such consumption is improving anyone’s well-being. In the years since her own early-20s flameout, Wilding, a classic hustler, has become a performance coach for high-achieving professionals—the person you call when your hair starts falling out—and a staunch critic of internet-fueled self-optimization. To Wilding and others in her field, the impulse to do better may start out as healthy and goal-oriented, but the dynamics of the internet can turn it into something counterproductive, if not self-destructive.

Social media runs on comparison and jealousy-inducing—sorry, “aspirational”—content. People constantly fail to measure up to the beautified, filtered, or otherwise cherry-picked moments of the lives of influencers, but continue to grind away trying. “There’s a sense of incompletion to the endless scroll too,” says Wilding, who is also a licensed social worker. ”You can never get fully on top of things. Since your brain likes to close loops, it leads to more anxiety.”

That anxiety can lead to oversorting. Deb Lee, a digital productivity coach, likens overachievers’ digital worlds to a way-too-organized closet. “We decide to color-code, to buy fancy containers for our apps and time online,” Lee says. “But we can get a little ahead of ourselves and create an unsustainable system.” Hustle porn, as a kind of maximalism, would seem to be the opposite of zen-porny minimalism, which advocates for doing well by doing and having less. In practice, their struggles are as similar as their aesthetics are different.

Hustle-porny parts of the internet further subdivide into two camps: the app aficionados and the plannerites. Basically, it’s digital vs. analog. Subreddits like r/Productivity are a constant stream of recommendations for apps and Chrome extensions aimed at minimizing procrastination, interspersed with queries about how to optimize workflows along with hunts for specific app features, like a to-do app with an in-progress function. Deb Lee tends toward this style of productivity, speaking gleefully of a folder full of productivity apps she’s yet to test. The idea, as she explains it, is to do your best with the tools you have on hand, which for most people includes a smartphone, and offload brainspace onto it. For some, this techno-offloading has created a system of automated pings and buzzes so byzantine it takes a full Medium post to capture. “Well damn,” writes one commenter. “I already do all this but still would like to be more productive.”

Over on Instagram, there’s bullet journal or planner culture, where instead of automating their days, they caligraphize them. Blithe hashtags like #plannerporn and #planneraddict bring you millions of beautiful posts of perfectly planned days all written in hands that put fonts to shame. “It’s very competitive,” says Wilding, a bullet journaler herself. “And I can’t tell you how many times clients will buy a nice planner, and then there’s that guilt that comes along when they don’t use it.”

Online minimalism, and the zen porn it consumes, is no less multifaceted. “People have clashing ideas of what minimalism is,” says Darrell, who moderates the subreddit r/minimalist. “To some people, it’s owning 100 items or less. To others, it’s about not living beyond your means and only owning what you need.” As a moderator, he’s watched the movement grow under the influence of a bevy of online trends: the cult of Marie Kondo, zero waste and other environmental movements, the hipstery preference for handmade and long-lasting items, simple frugality in a time of economic hardship. All hope to improve their well-being (and ergo productivity) by removing all manner of clutter.

Darrell has, in fact, considered leaving online minimalist culture behind: r/minimalist is a intentionally zen-porn-less spinoff subreddit. “I found online communities were becoming a place for people to shill their own YouTube channels or podcasts,” he says. “Or just post closely cropped photos of their MacBooks on their empty desks.” Especially in the wake of Marie Kondo, minimalism is a sellable lifestyle, inspiring streams of posts all crowding under the #minimal umbrella. Fine-lined tattoos and stark white kitchens and solid black bikinis and plain wooden stools all apply. As do videos about purging your closet, buying guides, and guides to avoiding buying things. So Darrell Kondos his subreddit with “no mercy,” hoping to focus on lifestyle rather than aspirational swag. He insists this doesn’t take very long.

The lesson, according to Wilding and Lee, is the same for both approaches to productivity: The philosophy is a good one, but its implementation can be a problem. Lee recommends considering why you’re incorporating or subtracting something from your life before doing so. (Which seems like a no-brainer, but tell that to the useless apps clogging up your third homescreen page.) “Try to hold these concepts flexibly,” Wilding says. “Think about what pieces of Marie Kondo’s or another optimizer’s methods fit into your life.” Easy things to say, perhaps, but evidently challenging to follow.

The reason people feel compelled to self-optimize right now is more complicated than just “the internet made me do it.” To Wilding, the web’s productivity problems are the unintended consequences of the self-esteem movement of the ’80s and ’90s—that participation trophy stuff boomers gripe about—and millennials’ emphasis on mental health and emotional intelligence. “Our parents told us that if we did well in school and treated people well, then we’d get a good job and be set,” Wilding says. “2008 blew up that ideal.” Millennials, taught to crave structure and reward and to be in tune with those cravings, have been floundering since, fueled by the self-reinforcing cycle of social media.

Ultimately, self-optimization is about control. Though there’s an element of competition, it seems mainly motivated by a drive, amid political precariousness, to take command over whatever you can—along with, in minimalism’s case particularly, mounting unease with consumer culture. It seems pinned to the foundational anxieties of the people creating and consuming the content most ravenously. As the world swings about in uncertainty, we Kondo our closets at the buzz of our to-do list app, the hustle and the zen blending into the selfsame impulse to just do something.

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