Whenever I am asked about my work, I dodge the question. Earlier this year I published my first book and whenever someone remarks how proud I must be, a bubble of shame grows inside because, well, I’m just not. In an attempt to rid myself of that feeling, I do more. I work harder. I endeavour to be more productive.
When I write down everything I’ve done since the beginning of the pandemic – pitched and published a book, launched a media awards, hosted two podcasts – I feel overwhelmed. The only thing more overwhelming is that I feel like I’ve done nothing at all.
I have started thinking of this unhealthy relationship I have with my professional achievements as 'productivity dysmorphia'. I have realised that it is an inability to see my own success. It’s like I’m looking in the mirror of my professional life and I don’t see the published author staring back at me. All I see is a failure.
The term 'productivity dysmorphia' popped into my head while I was reading Otegha Uwagba’s recent memoir, We Need To Talk About Money. She labelled her relationship with her finances 'money dysmorphia', a phenomenon first described by the data journalist Mona Chalabi. "It is possible to feel as though you don’t have enough money – and act accordingly – even when you do," Uwagba writes. I read that and thought, I have this, but with productivity.
When I googled 'productivity dysmorphia', all I could find was a blogpost referencing a tweet from 2020 that said: "I feel like productivity dysmorphia should be acknowledged as a thing." The author of that tweet is Ben Uyeda, a California-based designer who tells me: "[I wrestle] with the fact that I’m happy with a certain amount of internal conflict when I’m being creative, but also feel a sense of letdown after achieving something big."
When I write down everything I've done since the beginning of the pandemic, I feel overwhelmed. The only thing more overwhelming is that I feel like I've done nothing at all.
Uyeda tells me that friends call him a workaholic but that always feels like an oversimplification. "Sometimes I do enjoy the disproportional pursuit of going hard on a particular project," he says. "I objectively know that I should be more content with my level of output, but also I know that I’m at my creative best when I’m feeling a little edgy."
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."
I wanted to know how widespread this phenomenon was so I asked whether others felt the same on Twitter: "Do you ever have a disconnect between what you've objectively achieved and your feelings about it?" I was inundated with replies. Hundreds of people, from Sunday Times bestselling authors to sex workers and partners at venture capitalist firms shared their experiences of feeling a sense of detachment from their achievements.
Otegha Uwagba was one of the many people to reply to my tweet, saying she often pretends to agree with people who praise her achievements – despite not seeing it herself – for fear of sounding ungrateful. A recent philosophy graduate said she feels like her degree is less than because she didn’t have a 'real' university experience due to COVID-induced distance learning. A working mother who’s training to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in 40 days and sleeping in 90-minute bursts said she still feels lazy.
Having named my nemesis and found out that others are facing down the same issue in their own lives, I decided to speak to experts in a bid to find out what is not only stopping us from enjoying the fruits of our labour but causing us to diminish them to the point of nonexistence.
What I learned from speaking to them is that 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 savour any success we might encounter along the way. All this left me with one looming question: what do we do about it?
Dr Jacinta M. Jiménez, a psychologist and leadership coach, tells me that imposter syndrome was the first psychological concept that came to mind when I reached out to her about these feelings. But while it does bears some of the hallmarks – persistently doubting one’s skills or talent – she says that it’s "different because imposter syndrome is about being exposed". Imposter syndrome didn’t ring true for Uyeda, either, who says he has a strong sense of self-belief. This is about output, not confidence in one’s ability to produce work.
Jiménez pointed me in the direction of something known as the hedonic treadmill. Coined by the psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell in the early 1970s, hedonic adaption refers to our general tendency to return to a set level of happiness despite ups and downs. "Accomplishments or great experiences can lift our mood temporarily and leave us feeling really wonderful but the effects can be quite fleeting," says Jiménez. We return quickly to our baseline and then seek out our next accomplishment, only to have the same feeling.
Amelia Nagoski, co-author of Burnout: Solve Your Stress Cycle, told me that productivity dysmorphia is likely a sign of burnout. "'Decreased sense of accomplishment' is what they call it in the research," she says. Along with depersonalisation and emotional exhaustion, it’s one of the three primary signs of burnout. "It happens because our bodies are stuck in the stress response," Nagoski says. In other words, our fight-or-flight triggers misfire. "If your stressor is chronic and ongoing, that kind of tunnel vision means that you lose your sense of the big picture," she says.
Other mental health conditions might be playing a part here, too. A law student, who wished to remain anonymous, told me she experiences productivity dysmorphia due to her obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). "I hadn’t even known OCD could manifest in that way," she said. "It took me a long time to get help because I was consistently praised by teachers for working so hard." A number of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) reported similar struggles.
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 to what they are telling us.
Our professional anxieties do not exist in a vacuum. Professor Mary Blair-Loy, director of the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions at the University of California, San Diego, studies work devotion – the belief that in order to show commitment to our work, it should be our central focus. She says that each individual's background will inform their feelings about work. "There’s a baseline problem that you have identified," she tells me. "But it’s so much worse for some workers than for others based on things like gender, race and class."
Blair-Loy’s current research has found that not only do top female scientists feel like they’re falling behind, they’re also undervalued. Looking at bibliographic metrics of the scientists’ productivity, Blair-Loy and her team found that mothers self-identify as less productive than they actually are and are paid less than male peers. "On top of the general problem of women, and particularly women of colour, feeling less productive, they’re also viewed as less excellent, even when we control for their actual productivity," she says. So external attitudes towards a given demographic – women, people of colour, people from low-income backgrounds – will impact how they see themselves, too.
Blair-Loy’s observations resonated with me. Perhaps I feel less productive than I am because, as a woman in the workplace, I’ve absorbed the messages – implicit and explicit – that I’m not working hard enough. In which case, productivity dysmorphia is simultaneously a symptom of modern work’s afflictions but also the cause. And so fixing it is less about ridding ourselves of these feelings and more about looking to what they are telling us.
If we do look, we see that our workplaces, like our society as a whole, are still unfair. All workers are not treated equally. Women, people from low-income backgrounds and people of colour are discriminated against. The old adage – "You have to work twice as hard to get just as far" – still rings true. We can give our feelings of inadequacy a name. Labelling them 'productivity dysmorphia' will help to identify the problem and, in doing so, enable us to see ourselves as we really are. But that’s not enough. We need to tackle the causes of this problem: racism, sexism, classism and a society that frames failure to succeed at work as an individual failing, not a symptom of structural inequalities. Next time someone asks me about my work, I won’t dodge the question. I’ll answer truthfully: it’s complicated, but I’m working on it. I’m holding up the mirror to see what’s really there.