Productive obsessing

My history of OCD and current experience of Generalized Anxiety Disorder have made me very, very familiar with obsessing and worrying. It is, quite possibly, the world's most pointless activity--especially since I don't have any control over the things I'm freaking out about!

So when I saw a PsychCentral post on how obsessions can be productive, I had to read it. Because I was convinced the authors were well and truly full of shit. Obsessions make me so anxious I puke. Obsessions make me wash my hands in Clorox, make me run on the treadmill for hours, make me starve myself for days in preparation for a meal out with friends. How could obsessing be productive?

I'm still not convinced that the obsessions themselves are productive, but it's a matter of channeling that productivity into something worthwhile. My friend Jeff Bell calls it The Greater Good. In the PsychCentral post, which reviewed the book Brainstorm, blogger Susan Perry had this to say:

Writers and other artists are often desperate for fresh inspiration and renewed motivation. By learning concrete ways to tap into the brain’s potential, Maisel’s readers can better move forward in whatever realm they care most passionately about. What the Maisels are talking about here is another way to look at flow, or focus, or deep engagement, or mindfulness. Even if they’re not all defined as precisely the same experience, there’s no particular need to pull apart the threads of difference. They’re all extremely positive states of mind, ones that creative people often crave and benefit from.

PRODUCTIVE OBSESSIONS (paraphrasing Maisel):

  1. Are not always easy or fun; but ease, fun, and joy may be part of the process.
  2. Are fueled by good reasons, not only love and passion.
  3. Need to be strategized. To be continuously effective, you need to plan what you’ll do when you feel anxious or at a dead end.
  4. Require stretching. “Expect the emotional equivalent of aches and pains,” writes Maisel.
  5. Necessitate switching gears between your normal life and your obsessive life. Learn to do so with the least time wasted and “no internal drama.”
  6. Need to be monitored. Learn to pay attention to your state of mind, taking breaks when needed, or devoting a full week to your obsession when that is what’s called for.
  7. Are risky. “Take the risk that your project may not prove as important as you had hoped,” notes Maisel. “Take the risk that it will prove exactly as important as you had hoped, taxing you with its difficulty and troubling you by its felt significance.”
As I read through this list of seven things, I thought about how true it was, especially for my blog. It is exhausting and frustrating at times--the writer's block or, at other times, the flooding of ideas--and I think about my blog a lot. It's also true of my life as a science writer and my work as an advocate in the field of eating disorders. I think about these things all the time anyway- I may as well make some good come out of them.

The other reason I was glad to read this was that it showed me that my propensity to obsess about basically everything could actually be a useful skill. It can allow me to immerse myself in my work, focus on one subject and become and expert. Things like this blog and my writing career let me use my skills for good instead of evil.

How do you turn your obsessions into something productive? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Cathy (UK) said...

Like you Carrie (and probably many others who read this blog...), I have always been a very anxious person. Right from being a small child I obsessed over intrusive thoughts, wound myself up into a frenzy over such thoughts, and developed compulsive behaviours to try to deal with frightening, intrusive thoughts. Translated into psychiatric-lingo I have GAD and OCD. I also have mild ASD.

You asked us: "How do you turn your obsessions into something productive?"

That can be difficult at times, because my thought patterns are often dominated by anxious ruminations. However, I think the answer is to try develop an interest that is also productive - because a person of my psychological make-up will always give 100% effort to an interesting obsession.

As a teenager in the 1980s I became obsessed with how the body functions. To me it seemed like an intricate, finely-tuned machine - a system I wanted to discover more about. And so I studied and studied - Physiology and Biochemistry. I did 4 university degrees, including a PhD. The latter was not an arduous pursuit because I lived and dreamed it. I had no problem shutting myself away for hours when it came to writing my PhD thesis.

Thus, my obsessions CAN be productive. However, I always run the risk of falling into unproductive obsessions that endanger my health/wellbeing, one of which was anorexia nervosa.

James Clayton said...

Very interesting. An obsessive personality can lead to a lot of productivity and I know that I - like you - get into compulsive writing and working kicks where I can't stop.

BUT, because obsessive behaviour has made me so unproductive, anxious and stressed, I'm not sure I want to recognise being motivated as obsession. When I get in the flow I'd rather think it was a feeling of creative stimulation, motivation, determination.

'Obsessive' has so many negative connotation and just brings me back to punishing exercise regimes and hours fretting about food and anything else that 'threatened' me. I'd rather just think that I'm someone who 'gets carried away'.

It also probably doesn't help if you end up obsessing about being productive. We probably all need to just relax more...

Kim said...

I've always been anxious and obsessive (as a way to deal with the anxiety). For me, there have been lots of positives, and I have to remember that instead of thinking that recovery means I become Ms. Relaxed. I've always been a little high-strung and there isn't much wrong with that (until it channels into anorexia). I know my obsessiveness is what made me a great student. I loved to learn and memorize facts, above and beyond what was required. Obsessiveness gets me through writing novels in their entirety. If I wasn't obsessive, I would probably lose steam. My obsessiveness makes me very, very organized. I'm on time, reliable, etc because I'm obsessed with following rules ;) It can work for us as long as it's channeled in the right way.

Katie Green said...

This is very interesting, because its something that's been key to my recovery. I am a VERY obsessive person, there's no two ways about it. I know it, I'm very aware of it, and I've seen how destructive it can be if left unchecked.

However, since I turned my obsession away from controlling my food or weight and towards a career I'm really passionate about, I've found it a very beneficial trait indeed. It makes me extremely hard-working and productive in a way that people with different peronality types really just don't understand!

Yes, I still get pretty irrationally anxious about things, most especially about work, but if I'm careful, obsessing about it is more of a gift than a curse fr sure.

Anonymous said...

i agree with this as long as your obsessions are healthy ones. i dont think obsessions are to productive if everything is seen and done in black and white. i have many intrusive thoughts that are "have to's" in my mind but in reality i dont need to do them. other obsessions are productive, like habits i have at my job

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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