• One Thing Better
  • Posts
  • Do You Have “Productivity Dysmorphia”? Here’s the Cure.

Do You Have “Productivity Dysmorphia”? Here’s the Cure.

Stop feeling that sense of non-accomplishment, and start appreciating all you’ve done. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible.

This is a newsletter about how to become more optimistic and resilient, and how to turn moments of change into great opportunity. Ready to seize tomorrow? Subscribe here — and to hear me debunk today's greatest fears about change, check out my podcast*

Do you ever feel a sense of non-accomplishment, no matter how hard you’re working and how many tasks you’ve knocked out?

You might have “productivity dysmorphia.”

The phrase was coined in this Refinery29 piece, and I should say: I do not like this medicalized name at all. We already do way too much pathologizing of common experiences (see: “Technology addiction”).

But all the same, I do appreciate that it was named. It is much easier to talk about something once it has a name — and this is something that, if you feel it, you should face and talk about. Because the cure starts by recognizing all your hard work.

So let’s discuss.

What does productivity dysmorphia look like?

I’ll state again: This is not a codified psychological phenomenon. But still, a lot of people feel it. The Refinery29 writer, Anna Codrea-Rado, describes it like this:

Productivity dysmorphia sits at the intersection of burnout, imposter syndrome and anxiety. It is ambition’s alter ego: the pursuit of productivity spurs us to do more while robbing us of the ability to savor any success we might encounter along the way.

And what does it look like in practice? Here’s one example she describes, from a YouTuber named Ben Uyeda:

Uyeda became aware of this feeling when his DIY YouTube channel hit 1 million subscribers. "I honestly felt zero satisfaction in the accomplishment and was just thinking about what to do next," he says. "It was like a work version of COVID; I’d lost my sense of taste for accomplishment.

Here, as I see it, is Uyeda’s problem: He believed that it should be possible to feel the sensation of hitting 1 million YouTube subscribers. I have done this too. I assumed I would feel being promoted to editor in chief of a national magazine, for example, or that I would feel selling a book. I searched myself for physical sensations. I found none. So a little part of me always said: That wasn’t the big accomplishment.

But wait.

Stop ourselves here and ask, “What would any of that actually feel like?” Do we expect it would be euphoric, like some kind of runner’s high? That’s unlikely, because the thing that has changed isn’t inside of us. It is a number on YouTube, or a title on a business card, or a transaction at a publishing house. That stuff changed; we did not.

Still, you may identify with the expectation. Anyone ambitious will set some lofty goal, and then will focus on it so much that they expect a specific payoff. They expect to feel different. To be different!

But... that is simply not how things happen.

So how do things work?

Who are we when we accomplish things?

This essay by the writer Ryan Holiday captures it perfectly. He writes:

I was mowing the lawn when I found out my book hit #1 this year. I saw the email come in and went right back to mowing the lawn. Nothing was different. Nothing changed. I was still me. And when I hit it two more times over the next twelve months? The same…only less because the novelty had worn off. The news wasn’t new anymore.

This sounds shocking at first, but also, it is not. I mean, what literally changed when he hit #1? Did he become a different person? Did he shed his mortal body? Did he grow a foot taller? Glow a radiant green? No, of course. He is exactly the same as he was before.

I have a theory: We expect accomplishments to feel like we won the lottery — which is to say, something abrupt and transformative. But true accomplishments are built towards. They happen so gradually that, in the end, they don't feel like anything. And also, they are part of a continuum: Nobody wins the lottery as a means of continuing to play the lottery, but professional accomplishments are meant to be a notch along a longer journey.

That's not a problem to grapple with. It's just a reality to adjust to.

We should still strive. We should still work. But we should know that the payoff happens along the way, not in a singular moment.

Therefore, I have only one remedy to suggest: Take stock of your accomplishments over time. Pause to appreciate them when they happen, no matter how big or small. But also, look backwards at certain times and celebrate. You got from all the way back there to HERE!

When you look back over your year, or two years, or five, you can start to track where you accomplished the specific things that have contributed to building the path that you’re on. And when you take that zoomed-out view, even smaller accomplishments begin to take on meaning, because they feed into a broader trajectory. When you think about it that way, your focus can shift away from “how many things have I gotten done,” to “what are the things I’ve accomplished that have breathed life into my sense of self and purpose?”

And here’s the key: That’s what accomplishments should be about in the first place.


Let's Connect!

Like what you read? Subscribe and take control of your future.

🕵🏻‍♀️ Looking for more lessons to help you change? Check the archive.

💌 What do you think? Let me know!

👋 Say hello on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.


Cover credit: Getty Images / We Are