First Published: February 23, 2022 | Last Updated: February 23, 2022

The gist: Productivity dysmorphia is a common symptom of workaholism and Hustle Culture, but here's how you can recognize and manage it when it comes up.

Productivity dysmporphia. 

Did you get chills the way I did when you first saw that phrase?

The moment I first read the words, something clicked.

I knew instantly what it was, and that it applied to me.

And there's SUCH a power in giving names to the feelings we experience, that it took a little bit of the self-inflicted pressure off just as quickly.

If you...

  • Have a relationship with your work and productivity that feels TOO complicated...
  • Get other people telling you you're successful and productive, but you just. don't. see. it...
  • Feel like a failure whenever you're not chasing the relentless pursuit of productivity...

You might need to learn about productivity dysmorphia as much as I did, so let's talk about it.

what is productivity dysmorphia

What is productivity dysmorphia?

Productivity dysmorphia is the inability to accurately see or evaluate your own productivity.

It was first written about by author Anna Codrea-Rado, but in her research she found other people using the phrase on social media.

This simultaneous invention/discovery goes to show how perfectly name the phenomenon is.

She makes the point that it's not the same as workaholism, but I would say it's part of it.

Meaning, I'm sure workaholics feel productivity dysmorphia much more frequently and intensely than people whose self-worth is less tied to their productivity.

Codrea-Rado described it as, "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."

[Productivity dysmorphia] 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.

Productivity dysmorphia causes

There's obviously so many reasons people don't feel productive enough, and they depend on so many different facets of our life experience.

But some of the common drivers of productivity dysphoria are:

  • Burnout
  • Anxiety
  • Hedonic adaptation
  • Imposter syndrome

And like any part of Hustle Culture, it's even worse if you're marginalized in your workplace, and even more dangerous if you deal with chronic physical or mental illness.


In her original piece, Codrea-Rado spoke to Amelia Nagoski, author of the book Burnout (which we're big fans of in the Work Brighter community).

Nagoski was struck by how much overlap there was with the symptoms of burnout. Decreased sense of accomplishment is even in the WHO's official definition of burnout.

And I know my own productivity dysmorphia is definitely strongest when I'm dealing with burnout, along with when any of my other mental illnesses are heightened.

Speaking of mental health...


Anxiety, whether situational stress or chronic mental illness, can also increase feelings of productivity dysmorphia.

When you feel like there's never enough you can do to feel safe, secure, and calm, it doesn't matter how much you've already done.

There's always more to do, and it's easy to fall into all-or-nothing thinking.

It's even easier if you have other mental illness. Several of the people Codrea-Rado spoke to in her research felt like it was driven by their OCD or ADHD, both of which can cause or exacerbate anxiety.

Personally, can confirm! They're very closely tied for me.

Hedonic adaptation

If you've never heard of hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill, it's the idea that as someone's situation gets better, their brain quickly adapts to that standard.

It becomes the new "baseline," no longer providing as much satisfaction as before. So their expectations rise higher, and higher, and higher over time.

You can probably see how this hedonic treadmill plays out for high achievers paying close attention to their output and productivity.

We're continually improving our productivity and accomplishing more, but our standards are growing just as quickly as our "done lists." So when your ambitions and dreams are big and quickly growing, your very real accomplishments can never live up to your expectations.

No matter how much you put on your "Accomplishments" list, your "Someday/Maybe" list of ideas and goals never gets any shorter.

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Every Monday, you'll learn one tip each on how to work, rest, and play in the week ahead.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome was also mentioned in conversations about productivity dysmorphia, but while they're similar, they're still very different.

With imposter syndrome, someone is afraid of being "found out" and revealed as untalented or inexperienced, regardless of how much of either they actually have.

With productivity dysmorphia, it's more common that the insecurity is about output, not past experience or skill. The fear of being "found out" is more about being uncovered as lazy.

Speaking from experience, awareness of your skill and experience can even be part of the problem.

It feels like you're letting yourself and others down by not living up to the potential you recognize you have.

How to manage productivity dysmorphia

So what's the best solution to productivty dysmorphia? Well, there is none. 😬

Hustle Culture is so pervasive and our whole lives have been so steeped in it, that there's no avoiding a bout or two with it.

But over time, you can learn to recognize it, then build up some defenses and coping strategies.

Some of the best things that have helped me recognize my productivity dysmorphia are mindset strategies that help hone my self-awareness and divest from Hustle Culture.

Some of my favorites?

How to Manage Productivity Dysphoria

Journaling about my day

For example, journaling and reflecting on my day usually helps me see how much I accomplished, that I previously wasn't giving myself credit for.

I can't tell you how many times my evening pages started off with "I feel like I did nothing today," only to go on to list paragraphs and paragraphs of things I actually did.

It's kind of like a long-form "done list."

Writing realistic to-do lists

In my daily journal entries, I also usually think through what I want to get done the next day. This is before writing a daily to-do list.

The journal version of the plan is usually completely unrealistic.

If it were my official to-do list, I'd be setting myself up for failure from the start.

Thankfully, that's not my strategy.

Instead, after I braindump everything I feel like I "should" get done that day, I look over the list and figure out what I actually can get done.

And THAT becomes my real, practical to-do list.

Redefining productivity

Finally, I know what productivity means and looks like in my life. I've taken the time to redefine productivity for myself outside of what Hustle Culture and capitalism tell me it should be.

What it means should be different for everyone.

But because of my chronic illness, for me it means taking care of my health is just as, if not more, productive than taking care of my business and bank account.

It also means I've defined my limits.

I have an idea of what "enough" work or activity in a day means for me. Essentialism really comes in handy there.

Do you have productivity dysmorphia?

It's okay to admit and normal to feel.

But if you want help managing it and building habits that fight against it, stick with me.

We talk about this every week in the Work Brighter Weekly.

Subscribe to it now to learn how to better balance work, rest, and play despite Hustle Culture:

Are you ready to escape Hustle Culture and start working brighter?

Work Brighter Weekly is the anti-Hustle Culture productivity newsletter.

Every Monday, you'll learn one tip each on how to work, rest, and play in the week ahead.