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The Benefits of Harnessing Obsession

How to distinguish between between productive and unproductive obsessions.

Key points

  • There are important differences between productive and unproductive obsessions.
  • Unproductive obsessions are our bane and pester us and harm us.
  • Productive obsessions are our lifeblood and allow us to produce, create, and succeed.

Most of our obsessions are not of our own choosing and do not serve us. They arise because we are anxious creatures and our unproductive thoughts cycle repeatedly to the beat of that anxiety. Against our will, we obsess about the indignity of getting older, about changing our partner’s supercilious attitude, about reconciling with a hostile parent, about catching a dreaded disease, about securing our next drink. We obsess about some trivial matter at work and, that matter having been resolved, we obsess about the next trivial matter at work. We obsess about things that we want to happen, like winning the lottery, and about things that we don’t want to happen, like getting wrinkles. Our mind, which ought to be ours, is stolen away by anxiety thieves.

Even if one does not have obsessive-compulsive disorder, many people are driven by anxiety to obsess in unproductive ways. Their unwanted, intrusive thoughts—the textbook definition of an obsession—often lead them to compulsive behaviors like searching endlessly for youth enhancers, washing their hands raw, drinking to excess, or never really leaving their job at the office. Obsessive thoughts do not always lead to compulsive behaviors but they regularly do, so regularly that the two ideas have become joined in the same breath, as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

These are unproductive obsessions—they do not serve us. They waste our precious time and occupy our finite neurons, robbing us of their availability. These thoughts pressure us to behave compulsively in ways that do not help us. Anxiety fuels these obsessions and the effort to relieve our anxiety leads us to pointless, questionable, or dangerous behaviors intended to quiet our nerves and banish the anxiety. Our own nervous system puts us under enormous pressure and produces all sorts of unhappy effects in addition to our unproductive obsessing. We become hyper-vigilant, easily startled, prone to opportunistic illnesses, unable to sleep, or easily fatigued. Anxiety throws us a party of problems, with unproductive obsessions the guest of honor.

This happens because of the sort of creature that we are. We have evolved with prominent bits of an ancient brain and prominent bits of a modern brain, survival instincts and a moral apparatus, primitive appetites, and subtle consciousness. We are the sort of creature that can conjure worry from the look of the sky, make a choice between surviving at all costs or laying down our life for a cause, eat too many peanuts one minute and compose a haunting love song the next, and in countless curious ways contradict and confuse ourselves. Fueled by an energy source that keeps our heart pumping and our mind racing, we are pressured to obsess unproductively. If we can get a grip on our minds, can we harness this power to obsess productively?

Scientific obsessions lead to vaccines, artistic obsessions lead to symphonies, humanitarian obsessions lead to freedom and justice. Productive obsessions are our lifeblood, both for the individual and for all of humanity. We should not fear them simply because they put us under unwanted pressure, give a compulsive edge to our behaviors, or in other ways discomfort us and threaten us. Rather, we should learn how to manage them.

You can move yourself closer to your goals by learning how to productively obsess. You create worthy obsessions that you chew on, struggle with, and love, and these serial productive obsessions become the central tool you use to manifest your potential and realize your dreams.

Rather than thinking about a million things, which amounts to thinking about nothing, and maintaining only a low-level interest in and enthusiasm about life, you announce to your brain that you have a fine use for it and that you intend to move it to a higher gear. It is an engine meant to perform in that higher gear and, having been waiting for your invitation, it will respond beautifully.

See for yourself. A productive obsession is nothing else but a passionately-held idea that serves your meaning-making efforts. See if the upside of making personal meaning by productively obsessing doesn’t outweigh the downside of pressuring yourself. Expect to feel challenged; also expect to feel rewarded. I want you to learn firsthand what productively obsessing feels like, what can be accomplished, and what benefits this active meaning-making provides.

An observer might doubt that your obsession with, say, adding more lights to your Christmas display as your children went hungry or finding another bird to sketch while your mate pined away for you really amounted to a productive obsession. While it is up to you to judge and not up to an observer, I hope that you will bring your conscience to the table, look at the consequences and ramifications of the obsessions you choose, and make sure that they are really productive ones. Analyze your own obsessions before giving yourself over to them, so as to make sure that they meet your own criteria for goodness and soundness.

Think about your own life. Wouldn’t you love to engage in a productive obsession, maybe for the very first time? What shall it be?

More from Eric R. Maisel Ph.D.
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