The video is a play-by-play account of what one teenage girl did with her afternoon, segmented into short intervals and performed for the internet. Time stamps flash across the screen: “2:30 tidied up and listened to a podcast.” We watch as a laptop closes and makeup bottles and hair ties appear, neatly organized, on a bureau. “3:15 got ready for my run” — she braids her hair and laces up her sneakers, lip-syncing to upbeat music. At 3:30 she runs; at 4:00 she hydrates, which she illustrates by filling a large Mason jar with water and taking a sip. “4:15 shower” — a montage of gray tiles and silver faucets and bottles of shampoo and conditioner. It goes on like this, through “4:45 reading” (Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”), “6:00 studying,” “7:00 salad bowl,” “7:30 watched tv with mum,” “8:30 watched greys anatomy,” “10:30 meditation” and, finally, “11:00 went to sleep.”
An entire half of her day has been compressed into 40 seconds and uploaded to TikTok, where it has been played more than 11 million times and more than 2.7 million people have liked it. It is a prime example of the genre I have come to think of as a “routine vlog,” in which people memorialize, in great detail, how they spend their time. These videos are often wellness-adjacent, clearly meant to be inspirational; they focus on runs and salad bowls, meditations and tidying. They illustrate a wholesome, regimented way of spending time, if an isolated one. They seem to imply that there is joy to be found in performing the perfect combination of activities in the right order and at the right moments. Some are segmented into even smaller increments. One, which advises viewers on a “perfect ‘that girl’ morning routine ????,” begins: 6:00 wake up, 6:05 make your bed, 6:10 drink water, 6:11 do your skin care. This has garnered more than nine million plays. Very little happens in these videos, but they are surprisingly common and surprisingly popular.
They are fascinating insofar as they document the minutiae of someone’s life — no detail is too small, even the 60 seconds devoted to drinking water. There’s a voyeurism in seeing how someone spends her time, down to the length of her showers. And yet the vlogs are also curiously devoid of real intimacy. Most tread the same unrevelatory territory: skin care, showers, healthful meals, hydration, waking up and going to sleep. If they are mesmerizing, it’s because they are so monotonous they lull the viewer into a kind of rhythmic stupor. They depict days that all pass in much the same way, broken, from morning to night, into intervals of minutes.
Schedules, like to-do lists, are aspirational; they rarely represent how we actually spend our time. In reality, things get in the way, things pop up, things are canceled; a run scheduled for 3:30 is pushed off until 4:30, at which point it’s too dark. Even on days when we hew to the events on our calendars, how much do they really reveal about what we’ve done? The minutes that pass in the shower might be minutes dedicated to thinking about a heartbreak, or imagining ourselves on vacation, or ruminating over tasks we’ve failed to complete. This is not captured by a camera panning across Pantene bottles.
Still, the allure of other people’s routines remains. This became obvious recently when the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes had personal documents become public as part of her trial. One was a schedule, scrawled on hotel stationery, that bears some resemblance to these minute-by-minute TikToks: “4:00-4:15 wash face, change,” “4:15-4:45 meditate, clear mind,” “4:45-5:20, work out.” She lists her daily lunch and dinner, along with pithy slogans: “I am never a minute late,” “ALL ABOUT BUSINESS.” Like the vloggers, she divvies her time into bizarrely short intervals. (Do people really need to schedule showers so tightly?) The document doesn’t tell us how Holmes actually spent her time, but it does tell us how she thought about it: laden with a near-panic anxiety about how to use each minute. Indeed, Holmes’s lawyers introduced the schedule as part of an argument portraying her as overwhelmed and frantically trying to please a controlling partner.
The schedules in these TikTok videos can be similar, so rigid that they belie an underlying sense of dread. But they are presented aspirationally. The implicit promise is that we, too, might schedule our lives this way. The routines are both highly personal and one-size-fits-all, with an odd exchange between intimacy and impersonality; someone invites you into her day, but mostly to show you how yours might be lived better. TikTok is an ideal platform for this kind of faux-confidential reveal, allowing for flashes of detail (the bedspread, the title of a book, the interior of a shower) while moving so quickly that it all blurs into generality.
The “perfect ‘that girl’ morning routine” video, for instance, spools from 6:20 workout to 6:40 shower to 6:50 dressing to 7:00 breakfast to 7:15 “check your phone.” As it goes on, it becomes clear that the images illustrating each interval are probably not drawn from the life of the person who made the montage, and who is unlikely to do all these things at such warp speed anyway. Two different beds appear, looking as if they might have been pulled from hotel websites. The glasses of water with lemon appear to be a stock photo. The workout photo, of a woman holding a hand-weight, might have been ripped from a magazine. This video is not a window into how its maker spends her time. It’s more like a mood board — only regimented down to the minute, with a certain naïveté about how time operates. It is a routine so general that it’s interchangeable with images from other lives. Even in some more personal videos, objects come to stand in for time slots: a luffa representing a shower, a hand on an eyelash curler symbolizing a makeup routine. An intimate window into someone’s day-to-day dissolves into emptiness, a morning that could be anyone’s — even, the video suggests, yours.
These montages of neat bedspreads and stylized breakfasts imagine that such a routine would be calming, grounding. In reality, operating at the speed many of these routines describe would be absurdly strenuous, a blur of furious toweling-off, a mad rush to pull on jeans, an inhaled slice of hastily buttered toast. But time in these vlogs is already compressed, so why not allow for another fiction?
Many of us have felt, during the ongoing pandemic, that our routines have been thrown into tumult. Daily commutes, morning coffees, postwork drinks, even holiday rituals have vanished or shifted, sometimes suddenly. It is hard not to think of these routines, performed in isolation for a wide audience, as people’s attempts to manage anxiety by bending time to their will. They reflect a desire for a world in which we can impose the perfect routine with permanence. It’s poignant to watch: sleek fantasies of order, unfolding amid chaos.
Sophie Haigney is a critic and journalist with a focus on visual art, books and technology. Her last column was about an incident in which the Greek police dropped a Picasso painting.