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Neuropsych

Feeling unproductive even after working all day? It may be “productivity dysmorphia”

It's the "intersection of burnout, imposter syndrome, and anxiety.”
Credit: Wordley Calvo Stock / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Productivity dysmorphia describes the feeling of failing to recognize your accomplishments and wanting to continue doing more, even when you’re running on fumes.
  • Author Anna Codrea-Rado, who popularized this term, defined it as “the intersection of burnout, imposter syndrome, and anxiety.”
  • It's possible that a toxic "hustle culture" is pushing people to continue working even though they’re breaking down and desperately need rest.

Do you ever feel guilty for relaxing, even after you’ve worked hard all day? Do you feel like you should be doing more despite working full hours and nearing burnout?

You may be experiencing productivity dysmorphia. Although not a scientific term, it’s a helpful way to describe the feeling of failing to recognize your accomplishments and wanting to continue doing more, even when you’re running on fumes.

Author Anna Codrea-Rado, who popularized this term, described it as “the intersection of burnout, imposter syndrome, and anxiety.” It’s a failure to see your success objectively. It’s “the pursuit of productivity that spurs us to do more while robbing us of the ability to savor any success we might encounter along the way,” she wrote in an essay. 

Productivity dysmorphia may look like working extra on the weekends because you think you should be doing more, even though you did more than your share of work throughout the week. It could look like feeling guilty and ashamed of yourself when watching a movie or hanging out with friends because it feels like you’re wasting time that you could have spent working. 

Highly competitive, work-oriented cultures normalize this constant pursuit of productivity that eats away at other areas of life. In fact, you’re often praised for putting productivity above your well-being. Remember how schools rewarded perfect attendance? Similarly, companies prefer employees who get the maximum work done while taking the fewest possible breaks. Rewards like these reinforce that rest is bad and that being constantly at work is the right thing to do.

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Sometimes called “internalized capitalism,” this mindset pushes people to force their minds and bodies to work even though they’re breaking down and desperately need rest. The idea is that this mindset encourages people to dedicate their weekends and free time to extra work, skip the family dinners to eat in front of a computer, and take work devices on vacations so they can wrap up a project or two on the plane. 

The problem isn’t always that the boss explicitly tells them to do it, but rather that they internalize the need to always be productive even when they’re going somewhere to enjoy leisure time. Habits like these may be born out of the social pressure to find self-worth in work achievements.

What’s more, it’s possible that certain groups of people experience productivity dysmorphia or similar workplace pressures more acutely than others, considering survey data shows that women and Black professionals tend to report feeling that they need to work harder than others to advance in their careers.

Hustle culture and productivity dysmorphia

There’s a difference between enjoying work, working a lot, and feeling compelled to work irrespective of whether you enjoy it. Popular quotes like “if you do what you love, you don’t work a single day in life” may normalize overworking under the assumption that if you’re passionate about something, you won’t ever get tired. 

Today’s toxic hustle culture may also feed into this narrative, advising people to maintain a side job outside of traditional office hours and utilize weekends to build a blog/channel/business so there’s no space left to take a break. 

Messaging like this can make you feel guilty for enjoying a weekend doing “nothing” if you’re not hard at work on the two days you get off from work. As people place more and more importance on work, it becomes harder to justify enjoying something if it doesn’t lead to productivity. 

Some writers have even begun describing rest as productive, as if people should stop relaxing if it doesn’t improve performance in some way. Not only does this mindset make it difficult to view and celebrate your achievements, but it also nudges you to build your entire life around work. The only milestones that matter are achieving work goals. The worst part? There’s no sense of fulfillment when you reach these goals. As Codrea-Rado says, “[It] not only moves the goal posts but then tells us that if we miss, that’s our personal failing.”


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