What Daily Routine Videos Actually Show Us

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.

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