Micromanaging the Self: The Rise of Self-Care Apps and The Culture of Work

Curator's Note

In the world of mobile apps, self-care has become synonymous with daily reminders to track everything from your meditation practice, to your medication intake, to your menstruation cycle. In 2018, Apple named “Self-care” its app trend of the year. A look at both the Apple and Android app stores reveals an endless supply of applications aimed at managing the work of self-care; work that, if these apps tell us anything, could account for a full-time schedule. A newer addition to the line-up of self-care apps, Aloe Bud, tracks users’ self-care in 11 different categories: hydrate, move, breathe, health, break, rest, fuel, refresh, people, stimulate, and motivate. The reach here is broad, and the opportunity to engage regularly with the app is high. Under each of these broad categories, you can set reminders anywhere from once a week to multiple times a day using three different icons, and with options to check-in or write short reflections. While this app has more options for notifications than many, it sits alongside any number of available self-care apps that could just as easily flood users with notifications.     

Ideas about regulating the self are not new -- we can think about Foucault’s ideas about individuals internalizing modes of governmentality or the long history of diet culture or strategies for time and task management. Still, in this current moment, the mobile phones on which many of us perform and track our self-care are an ever-present part of our lives. These apps are with us from the moment we wake up, through every minute of our work and leisure activities, and until the time we go to sleep. For a generation of digital natives who operate as “machines of self-optimization”, apps are just another avenue for optimization. This kind of constant connectivity to both work and non-work activities has led many, most notably Anne Helen Peterson, to describe millennials as the “burnout generation” and the contemporary $11 billion self-care industry as “exhausting.” 

The work of self-care is work to be done in addition to the “grind” or “hustle” of people's everyday lives, and increasingly in addition to second jobs or “side hustles” people take on to try and find greater economic security. Constant notifications remind users when they are failing to care for themselves, and in the world of apps, that failing is theirs and theirs alone. These apps pile up more daily to-dos in the name of managing the stress and fatigue that the culture of constant hustle has created. While I have no doubt that many of these apps have offered help and comfort to their users, the rapid growth of the self-care industry also speaks to a demand, perhaps even a desperation, for ways to manage the broader problems we face in our current culture of work. Until those are addressed in a more systematic and systemic way, self-care apps are just band-aids, patching us up and sending us back to self-optimize some more.  

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