Move over Imposter Syndrome, meet Productivity Dysmorphia

Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2022

If you are anything like me, the feeling that I did not accomplish enough by the end of the work week is a constant companion. Despite objectively accomplishing many things, I nonetheless am always left with the feeling that I could have, or perhaps should have, done more. I grew up with the mentality that you get what you put in, and so my effort has always seemed like my only measure of effectiveness. With age and experience, I have come to realize that some tasks require more brain power than others, and my ability to assess how long something should take is miserably prone to error. The days that I struggle to write three words for a grant proposal appear wasted, and yet I know that in the background, somewhere deep in my brain, the plan is coming together. Nonetheless, the impression of being chronically under-accomplished underlies the feeling that, when I am particularly overwhelmed, I am simply not cut out for this work. The dreaded imposter syndrome. When I discuss this feeling with others, they are quick to point out all of the tasks that actually do accomplish in a day and I cannot help but agree that despite feeling like I lazed about all week, I was objectively very productive. Why could I cognitively see my accomplishments yet somehow still feel unproductive?

It took an email newsletter from Lifehacker1 to give a name to my dilemma: productivity dysmorphia. Originally coined by Anna Codrea-Rado in a post for Refinery292, productivity dysmorphia is defined as

“the disconnect between what you objectively achieved and your feelings about it”. In the strictest of terms, even if you are wildly productive and achieve great success, productivity dysmorphia will rob you of the sense of accomplishment2,3. According to Codrea-Rado, productivity dysmorphia “sits at the intersection of burnout, imposter syndrome and anxiety”, pushing is to perform without ever feeling like it is enough. Being unable to relish in your accomplishments may signal impending burnout and should not be taken lightly. Fundamentally, it is a dissonance between what you achieve and the feeling of achievement (I prefer productivity dissonance to describe this phenomenon, but I digress).

So how does one fight productivity dysmorphia? According to Lifehacker1, bringing awareness to what you accomplish in a day is key. Writing down a to-do list every day and check off tasks as you accomplish them. Even if the list is long or you fail to complete them all, it will be a concrete reminder of the work you did accomplish. Lifehacker also recommends actually listening to positive feedback about your work. I read somewhere that humans have a weird cognitive bias that overemphasizes negative feedback and consequences and underplays the positive. If this is true, you have to take measures to actively bring awareness to the signs of your good work and progress, to counteract your productivity dysmorphia. Finally, Lifehacker urges us to redefine success and productivity, a message that is particularly important for the high-performance learners at the Faculty of Medicine. Graduate Student and Postdoc alike can set extremely high expectations for themselves and their performance, without recognizing that not all that success is in their control. Failure does not come from not accomplishing everything on your to do list or needing a break away from the work. The real danger is burnout and a loss of curiosity and passion for your work. Be careful not to associate your version of productive with experiments “working”. Experiments, including those that do not work out as planned teach us a lot, and as scientists, we need to learn to love the detours, chasing the data and the new knowledge. Being more flexible in your definition of accomplishment will help you see everything that you have achieved without the arbitrary endpoint of a thesis or a first author manuscript.

Graduate school is hard work and you do have to invest a lot of time and effort to be successful. The key is to now realize how much effort you put in as an accomplishment. Celebrate your successes!







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