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Identifying and overcoming productivity dysmorphia

Have you ever accomplished a goal but felt like it wasn’t enough? Do people tell you you’re a successful person, yet you still feel like you’re failing? Perhaps you have a to-do list a mile long, and even if you achieve it all, it doesn’t feel like you completed anything. Do you ever have a disconnect between what you've objectively achieved and your feelings about it? If you relate to statements like these, then you might have productivity dysmorphia.

Coined by author Anna Codrea-Rado, productivity dysmorphia is the inability to see your own success. It’s a combination of imposter syndrome, burnout, and anxiety. “It is ambition’s alter ego,” said Codrea-Rado. “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.”

Like any other form of dysmorphia, productivity dysmorphia can be damaging to your physical and mental health. Never feeling like you succeed is mentally draining, while the need to succeed pushes you to burn out mentally and physically to feel like you did enough.

But once you know the name of the enemy, it becomes easier to defeat.

Productivity dysmorphia is treatable, and it starts with understanding where it began. “Productivity dysmorphia is simultaneously a symptom of modern work’s afflictions but also the cause. Fixing it is less about ridding ourselves of these feelings and more about looking at what they are telling us,” said Codrea-Rado.

One contributing factor is societal expectations and pressures put on people based on their race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Women are more likely to experience productivity dysmorphia than men, and the same is true for low-income individuals as opposed to rich individuals. This is in part due to the expectation of gender roles for men and women, and outdated ways of thinking like the “culture of poverty.”

Knowing that part of the problem is external pressure makes it easier to identify why you believe in those pressures. It also helps to fight back. Begin by deciding if this is a way you want to continue. If you don’t want to keep feeling productivity dysmorphia, then you’re ready to make a change.

Consider the following ways to help overcome productivity dysmorphia.

Hold on to positive messages

We receive positive messages from coworkers, family, and friends daily, but we often overlook them. Begin by taking a screenshot of every “great job on this!” or “I love how you did this.” message and save them in a folder. Whenever you start to feel like you’re failing, go back and read those messages.

Write a physical to-do list or a have-done list

We do tens of small tasks every day that don’t get accounted for on our to-do list. Some of us feel too busy to even keep a to-do list to start. To-do lists not only keep you organized, but they serve as a reminder of how much you accomplish each week.

Instead of throwing your to-do list away instantly, keep it for your records. The next time you think you aren’t doing enough, go back and count how many items you completed.

Also, consider creating a “have done” list. Instead of listing what needs to be done, write what you’ve already accomplished. Don’t be afraid to include the small ne-to-two-minute items either. Those miscellaneous items take up more time than you think, yet you get no credit for doing them. Take the credit.

Be kind to yourself

We are our own worst critic. Start becoming your own best ally by practicing complimenting yourself. When you see a half-finished to-do list, think “I got a lot done this week” instead of “look how lazy you are. You didn’t even finish.”

And give yourself breaks and praise. No one else knows how hard you work or how much you struggle. You’re the only one who can give you true credit and lenience, so give it freely!

Reframe your idea of productivity and success

Social pressure gives us a definition of productivity and success that may not be true to your life. Is success being an astronaut and going into space? Is it being a mother or father? Is it owning your own business? What is success to you? Your version of success won’t look like anyone else’s, and that’s good! If everyone’s version of success was landing on the moon there would be no one to help people in need, grow food or teach schools.

Once you define your version of success, you’ll no longer be distracted or guilted by the success others are pursuing. With a roadmap to success in hand, you’ll find the journey easier to make.

One part of success is being able to let go of items that don’t matter anymore, and not expecting perfection. It will never be truly perfect, but it can be perfect enough. If you spend too much time obsessing over perfecting something, you’ll lose track of everything else that needs to get done. And missing one task, forgetting one thing or just falling behind doesn’t invalidate everything else you’ve already accomplished. A baby must fall repeatedly to learn how to walk. If it expected perfection on its first time or considered itself a failure after the first fall, it would never learn how to walk. Just remember that it’s okay to fall and get back up as many times as you need.

Productivity dysmorphia is a common problem for working adults. Recognizing how it impacts you will help you start to overcome it and live a healthier, less stressed life.

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