How to Overcome ‘Productivity Dysmorphia’

How to Overcome ‘Productivity Dysmorphia’
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Working and surviving in a capitalist system has always led to a unique sludge of emotions for us all. There are names for these self-perceptions and feelings, some of which — like “imposter syndrome” — we were familiar with before the pandemic, and some of which — like “burnout” — have become trendier to discuss in the last two years.

A newer term, coined by Anna Codrea-Rado, has entered the lexicon and could explain why you feel down about your productivity, even when it’s clear to everyone else you’re doing a great job. It’s called “productivity dysmorphia” and, per Codrea-Rado, it sits in “the intersection of burnout, imposter syndrome, and anxiety.”

Say you manage a coffee shop. In one day, you placed all the orders with your vendors, cleaned all the machines, launched a new promotional push, scheduled your employees’ shifts for the following month, and responded to every review and email. In this hypothetical scenario, you did great! You got all those tasks done and were attentive to your employees’ needs for time off and fair schedules. So why do you still feel like you didn’t do enough and you’re failing Productivity dysmorphia.

Don’t worry, though. There are ways to battle this feeling and relieve some of that anxiety.

Write down your to-do list

The key to battling productivity dysmorphia is recognising intellectually that you’re meeting your goals and doing good work. It can be helpful to see those facts represented in a tangible way. Write down your to-do list every morning, but don’t be overwhelmed if it’s long. You can and will get it all done in a timely manner. You are more than capable.

Crucially, mark off each goal as you accomplish it. It’s important that you see your successes and wins here. At the end of the day, even if only half of the items on the list are checked off, you’ll see how much work you really did. If you still feel like you didn’t do enough, that’s ok. Try to focus on the list of things you did do and remember it’s pretty huge.

These days, we’re all still working in adaptive, ever-changing environments. We might be back in an office one day, then working from home the next. Worries about finances, family members, and the overall state of the world can seep into our productivity, too, and it’s all made worse when a coworker is out sick, which is, of course, happening a lot these days. You’re probably shouldering more responsibility than usual, so be sure to keep an accurate log of all you’re doing. (Bonus: Keeping these written records can come in handy if you ever go to your boss to ask for a raise.)

Take positive messages to heart

Next time you get an email or Slack message thanking you for all your hard work, don’t just reply, “No problem.” Sit for a second and think about the message, whether it’s from your boss or a third-party connection. We get a lot of feedback during the workday that can go unappreciated because of the pace at which we work. Stop letting positive reinforcement pass you by. That’s what the productivity dysmorphia wants.

Create a folder on your phone or computer where you can save screenshots of positive appraisals. Any time you get a Slack message commending you for a great job on a project, stick it in the folder. Same goes for a text from a friend saying they’ve noticed you working hard lately or a comment from a consumer saying they love your product.

Don’t rely entirely on outside validation, but take care to remember that people notice the work you do and their lives would be more difficult without your productivity.

Reframe your idea of “productivity”

Productivity dysmorphia can impact you outside of your job, too. Say you were aiming for a seven-day streak on your Peloton, but you were too tired or had too much work to do on that last day. You might feel like you are a failure for not working out that day, but that just isn’t true. You worked out the six days before that! Missing one goal does not invalidate everything else you’ve done up until that point. We all get overwhelmed and overworked.

Try to reconsider what you think of as “productivity.” It’s productive to get all your work done, yes, and productive to work out or devote a certain amount of time every night to your side job or hobby. It’s also productive to rest. Relaxing and refreshing your mind and body will enable you to accomplish more in the near future without risking the dreaded burnout. Celebrate everything you do as a step toward productivity. Write down your rest periods, too. They count.

Finally, you aren’t defined by your accomplishments. Your accomplishments should be defined by you. You are more than the deadlines you meet, the subscribers you rack up, or the money you earn. And that’s good news because you’ve done a lot, no matter what your productivity dysmorphia tells you.

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