The Problem with Productivity: Imposter Syndrome & Inadequacy

Sameer Rao
12 min readMay 28, 2021
Cristian Newman on Unsplash

The Western world has this strange obsession with productivity. This inherit belief that we must constantly be working and even in our free time indulging in books or educational videos. We bash ourselves for not having motivation, turning to ineffective motivational quotes or videos with the hopes that they will solve our problem.

The key word in that last sentence is “we” — I am no stranger to this obsession to be productive. I am also not a saint who has uncovered the key to being productive and happy. I struggle with the exact issues that a productivity focused society breeds. And so in this piece, I aim to offer my thoughts and perspectives on the issues that come with productivity.

My writing is from the perspective of a second-year college student double majoring at a fairly competitive university. This piece will look into some of the issues that my friends and I have faced: feeling as though we are not doing enough and that the gap between us and our goals is widening when in reality we are doing well.

The American Dream

Before I begin, I think it would be useful to explore one of the sources of our productivity passion: the American Dream. I’m not here to argue whether or not the American Dream is real but more or less discuss the values that the American Dream instills in us.

The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of their financial situation or status, can achieve their goals or dreams through perseverance and hard work. That social mobility is evident in American society and that one can become what he or she sets out to achieve.

The American Dream’s validity has been hotly debated but what is true is that most people want to believe in the American Dream. It’s a story that gives us hope that we can achieve anything we want. It’s a value that powers our economy — without hope of growth, why work at all?

But the American Dream also has its fair share of hidden detriments in my eyes. These side effects are crucial to unpacking some of the problems with productivity — why our society’s obsession with productivity is causing people to feel unhappy, depressed, or unfulfilled. I’ll be breaking down these side effects below.

Living in the Future — why living in the future can hurt more than living in the past.

I liked to daydream a lot.

I remember in third grade having my first aspiration — my first career goal.

“I want to be a homemaker,” was inscribed on a drawing tacked to the classroom wall. My mom and sister laughed — my vocabulary hadn’t expanded to “architect” just yet.

Architecture was my end goal as a kid. Maybe it was the houses and buildings towering over my four-foot self at the time that self that drew me in rather than pushing me away. The thought of creating something of such size.

I remember getting this “I Can Draw” book and constantly practicing drawing. When I learned how to make a 3D barn, I found myself practicing on the backside of my homework papers.

We grow up with goals and aspirations that push us. That inspire us. As my world expanded so did my inspirations. I aspired to be a lot of things — a basketball player, an entrepreneur, a social media creator. I began looking up to various successful figures such as Jimmy Butler (basketball player), Elon Musk (successful entrepreneur), MKBHD (leader on Youtube).

Looking up to our inspirations is not a bad thing but it can come at a cost when you start doing something I would describe best as “living in the future.” When you start to imagine an idealized version of yourself from the future — yourself as an NBA star, yourself as the next Elon Musk, or yourself as the next Youtuber like MKBHD, in my case.

You begin to paint this idealized life of fame, fortune, and success. You dream up accomplishments and goals. You continue a nonexistent storyline.

Common advice you’ll hear from people is to “stop living in the past.” But, I would argue that living in the future is worse.

Living in the future takes mental capacity — you’re now sectioning part of your mind towards situations that are non-existent in the present. It sounds simplistic but that mental space is crucial and well needed in your present day life whether it is in your work, your health, or your interpersonal relationships. How can you count on yourself to be the person you aspire to be when your mind is only in the present 80% of the time?

It can be easy to live in the future through this imaginary idealized version of yourself but eventually your mind does come back to reality. And that recognition that present-day you is not who you dream to be…it hurts.

Living in the future feeds gratification. It feels great living through a version of yourself that is the next Michael Jordan, playing the sport you love, breaking ankles on the court, giving funny press conferences, and receiving fame. But ultimately, that gratification builds and builds until it is something that is unreasonable, something that is unattainable. It’s one thing to aspire to be one of the best high school basketball players and another thing to aspire to be Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time.

But aspirations are good right? Yes, but they should be reasonable in my eyes. If this idealized version of ourselves keeps growing and growing, then it will eventually become something truly unattainable and far beyond reach. And when that happens, we feel hopeless and demoralized. It stunts our “productivity”. The phenomenon is called moving goal posts, setting lofty goals that get bigger and bigger.

Ever thought about why people don’t achieve their New Years fitness resolutions? They set incredibly lofty goals: “I’m going to work out 5 days a week for the next year.” That’s unreasonable — if you haven’t worked out for even 5 days in a row the year before how do you expect to keep it up for 52 weeks? The goal-setter may workout consistently for a week or two before they miss a few days. But to make it up to themselves they “move the goal posts” with a loftier goal. “Since I missed two days last week, I’m going to work out 7 days this week”. This is even more unreasonable.

Living in the future is the same phenomenon. That snap back to reality causes you to realize that you are not where you’d like to be. So you may set a loftier goal or you just give up. Your productivity is in the garbage now.

Simply put: why bother to progress my present-day self when I can live through my future idealized version of myself?

And so there we find that the American Dream, the belief that gave us hope and aspirations, simultaneously can burn our productivity and growth if not handled carefully. But it hurts doubly because our society continues to push the productivity and motivation narrative and students, young people, and others suffering believe that there is something wrong with them — that they are not hard working enough or capable and that they are the reason for their problems.

Step onto a college campus — you’ll find the greatest mix of capable students in front of your eyes. In my first year at UNC Chapel Hill, I met incredible people aspiring to do even greater things — an aspiring law student, a quirky social activist, a world-class violinist, a shoe-selling entrepreneur. But those same students genuinely don’t believe they are working hard enough or that they are doing enough. They see themselves as average and not accomplishing enough to achieve what they set out to achieve. Students will beat themselves up for taking breaks despite taking on a full course load and involving themselves in multiple other endeavors.

From my perspective, I aspire to be a lot of things but at the core I want to be someone who can build and create successful, impactful products (think websites, apps, programs). And I do a bunch to learn as much as I can: I take 15–18 credit hour course loads, I work on personal projects, I work with real companies and nonprofits as part of organizations I’m involved with and despite all of this I still get this returning feeling that I’m not doing enough.

This can partially be attributed to my future ambitions to be a great leader and highly successful. But, it is also attributable to my next point: comparisons.

Imposter Syndrome and Comparisons — why we discredit our progress and successes.

In my eighth grade English class, students were assigned a year-long project called Genius Hour. The project was based on Google’s 20% time policy in which employees are allotted 20% of their work time to work on projects that they personally want to work on. Thus, my teacher allotted one day of our five day middle school week to working on a passion project that would culminate in a final expo.

The project I had decided on was to create a soccer game using Unity. I spent hours every night working on the project, going through code online, watching Youtube tutorials, and learning about game development until finally I had created my game: a pretty clumsy 2D soccer game.

Looking back, I can proudly say that the game is pretty lousy — bad physics, no animation, pretty silly dynamic. But for me at the time, I was extremely proud that my hard work had culminated into a working final product I could present…

…until I saw my peer’s project. He had built his own personal computer. Don’t get me wrong, I was still proud of my project but part of me felt like despite countless hours of work, I had not done something comparable to what this student had done.

And with that a cycle of comparison and inadequacy had begun.

In high school, I worked hard all four years to earn a 4.0, get involved with extracurricular activities, and participate in sports. Yet some of my peers had done even more. In cross county, I remember running ~4 miles every practice and performing significantly well at our State competition. But still I wasn’t where I wanted to be or felt that I should have been placement wise. For college acceptances, I got into some really great schools including the one I’m currently attending. But others had done the same but with scholarships or acceptances at even grander schools.

In the school environment, it’s hard not to compare yourself to your peers. A friend of mine took 12 Advanced Placement classes, acing each one of them, and still was barely in the top 5% of my graduating class.

Comparison is the devil. It spurs unhappiness rather than celebrating the success you have had. It took me till now to appreciate all that I had done in high school because comparison blinded me from taking a step back and giving myself credit for what I had done.

As a college student, I’ve seen my friends breakdown LinkedIn. Yes, LinkedIn, the platform intended to be a professional social platform, is incredibly harmful for mental health.

Perhaps one of the worst parts of LinkedIn is LinkedIn posts, where students often write a cliche caption attached to a massive photo of the company they’re interning at:

I am ecstatic to announce that I will be working at X in Summer 2022!

These posts generally have good will — students work extremely hard for these internships often overcoming hidden dejection and rejection. As a student myself, I applied to over 70 companies in the past recruiting cycle. Most companies don’t respond to your application, which often hurts more than a rejection as you still retain hope that they may respond at some point in time.

I believe people should celebrate the success of landing an internship or job offer at a company, but I’m not quite sure posting on LinkedIn is the best way. For one, LinkedIn posts are usually positive-facing, rarely highlight the difficulty or troubles students had to overcome. They convey the notion that the student applied and was accepted — that’s it, they were just that good.

And what does that cause? Comparison. LinkedIn posts hurt and demoralize your peers.

This past recruiting cycle, I deleted the LinkedIn app purposely but I had many friends who messaged me or talked to me about how they were feeling. They felt imposter syndrome — as if they weren’t good enough and that they didn’t belong. They felt like they weren’t strong business majors or strong computer science majors. They felt as if they were behind and that if they didn’t act fast, they would be left behind.

Rather than improve “productivity,” comparison and imposter syndrome caused them to apply less to job openings. And the reason makes sense — shared rejection isn’t as demoralizing as sole rejection. Seeing your peers also struggle with recruiting doesn’t demoralize you as much as seeing your peers succeed and feeling like you’re the only one struggling.

Viewing someone’s LinkedIn and admiring their experience and the cheesy bullet points highlighting their specific accomplishments doesn’t always motivate you to work harder but can rather cause you to discredit your accomplishments and generally feel like a failure.

So what can we do? One of my friends said it best:

Comparing yourselves to others is stupid. You’re not them, and you’re not in the same situation as them. Instead, if you’re going to compare yourself to someone, compare your today self to your yesterday self. Are you a better person? Are you improving?

Delete LinkedIn if you need to and focus on improving yourself. “Productivity” is similar to momentum. Once you start gaining confidence and appreciating your accomplishments and productive moments, you’ll find it easier to be more productive and you’ll also be happier.

Expand Your Definition — the productivity definition should be widened so you can appreciate moments that truly are productive.

Why is it that productivity is associated almost exclusively with work? Being productive in American society is gaining great progress on school work or career work. And while I agree those two pillars should fall under productivity, the definition is still too narrow.

Productivity should also be associated with our goals outside of work. A few examples include: FaceTiming family and friends to maintain relationships, fitness, cooking healthy meals, staying informed by reading the news, posting content, reading books, traveling, and many more.

As humans our lives should not be defined by just doing our work. We have other ambitions. Think about goals you might set for yourself at the beginning of the year — those goals are often not just related to work. Yet, we often associate productiveness as gaining progress on work.

The perils that come with this narrow definition of productivity is lack of credit for the things that we do outside of work.

Consider this day breakdown: you spent 2 hours studying, 3–4 hours hanging out with friends, 1 hour working out at the gym, 1 hour of Netflix, and 2–3 hours in classes. Many would see this as an unproductive day letting the 3–4 hours of hanging out with friends overpower what all they accomplished.

But why should 3–4 hours of quality time with close friends be unproductive? Why should 1 hour at the gym be unproductive? Why should 1 hour of entertainment that makes you happy be unproductive? These are tasks that provide real value to our lives but we see 2 hours of studying as not enough and discredit the other things we accomplished.

And that mindset is what could cause someone to feel depressed or unhappy.

I’m not saying that you should see every action you do as “productive” as that mindset is just as dangerous and could cause you to stop trying in your classes or work. I’m also not saying that 4–5 hours of entertainment that makes you happy is necessarily productive. Productivity requires moderation. The definition of productivity should be cautiously expanded to include things that do provide value.

I’d suggest taking a step back and thinking about what brings you happiness. I did this and found that I love two things: a) quality experiences with friends and family; b) success and progress in my work and studies. And so throughout this last semester, I’ve focused a lot on working and hanging out with friends, seeing both as productive and bringing me happiness. So far, it’s worked and I’m probably happier than ever before. And I have this inherit fulfillment that I am being “productive.”

With that said, these are my three high-level thoughts on some issues I have with our perception of productivity.

This is an ongoing experiment. I don’t quite fully understand our perceptions of productivity but this is my first stab at trying to understand the reasons we feel inadequate despite generally leading productive, successful lives.

Feel free to leave any comments on this below: I’d love to hear your takes, what you agree with, what you disagree with, your stories, and your thoughts.

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Sameer Rao

Sharing experiences and strategic analysis of products/companies