Introducing Productive Obsessions

The following article is featured in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Professional Artist Magazine, available for download here. It is based on an excerpt from the book Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions by Eric Maisel, Ph.D., available at for sale at amazon.com.

In working with creative and performing artists as a family therapist, creativity coach and meaning coach, I have seen the following recurring pattern: Clients often lose interest in activities, projects, relationships and careers that they started with great enthusiasm. In the face of competing ideas, creative projects, and everyday tasks and responsibilities, they become blocked.

Why are these artists burdened by a debilitating penchant for starting things with great energy and passion, then allowing the fire to die out — burdened by living a “scattered” life in the face of life’s multiple demands? Part of the answer lies in how the concept of obsession has gotten hijacked and turned into a complete negative when, in fact, productive obsessions can be counted among an artist’s saving graces.

Clinical psychology defines all obsessions as intrusive, unwanted thoughts. That way of thinking prevents people from feeling comfortable getting really involved with their own passions and interests. If, as a culture, you cry, “Watch out!” every time you get a little too engrossed in something, you begin to produce a culture that quickly loses enthusiasm for whatever it starts. This negatively affects artists who, as a consequence of this cultural distaste for obsession, find it hard to “justify” throwing themselves into their creative work.

Negative (or Unproductive) Obsession

It is true that many of our obsessions are not of our own choosing and do not serve us — that’s why obsessions have gotten such a bad name. These unwanted obsessions arise because we are anxious

creatures. Our unproductive thoughts keep cycling repeatedly to the beat of anxiety and produce negative obsessions. 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.

Unproductive obsessions waste our precious time and pressure us to behave compulsively (hence the term “obsessive-compulsive”). 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. No wonder psychology has taken aim at this serious human problem!

Embrace Obsessions that Work for You

Unfortunately, by focusing all of its attention on illness and what’s not working, psychology has missed the fact that the brain’s ability to obsess can also amount to a real treasure. The brain can productively obsess — and it really wants to. Consciously creating and actively nurturing productive obsessions amount to the very best solution for the problems that so many people are experiencing today — problems like getting easily distracted, starting things and then losing interest, and feeling like life is passing them by.

When you decide to elevate an interest into an obsession, these boredom and distraction problems resolve themselves. Turning mere interests into obsessions (a process that by its nature ignites your passion) is among the most important keys to self-motivation. People are happier and more efficient when they productively obsess. Instead of giving up on their current creative project, they find new motivation, new energy, and sustained interest in their own ideas and their own work.

It is not enough to possess a perfectly good brain; you must also take charge of it; and creating productive obsessions is an excellent way to do just that. If you don’t take good charge of your brain, you’ll find yourself trapped in trivialities, condemned to impulsiveness, led around by anxiety, and duller and sadder than you need to be. Productively obsessing is an antidote to all that.

Too many people allow themselves to worry about nothing. They grow numb with distractions, wasting neurons. They stay mired in the brain equivalent of a rat race as they spend their neuronal capital on spinning hamster wheels. You can transform this picture by learning how to productively obsess.

Cognitive therapists, positive psychologists and Eastern philosophers have all asserted that the trick to creating an authentic life is taking charge of how you use your brain. Rather than thinking about a million things, which amounts to thinking about nothing, announce to your brain that you have a fine use for it and that you intend to move it to a higher gear.

Because your brain is an engine meant to perform in that higher gear, it has been waiting for this exact moment, and it will respond beautifully to your invitation. By “getting out of your own way,” deciding to really focus on your current creative project, and cultivating the habits that allow productive obsessions to flourish (habits we’ll discuss in subsequent columns), you make your brain — and yourself — happy.

A productive obsession is an idea that you choose for your own reasons and that you pursue with all of your brain’s power. You take the seed of an idea and nurture it, providing it with genuine devotion. When you live your life as a series of productive obsessions, your interest never flags, and life feels genuinely worth living. If you’ve been reluctant to raise the bar and turn your interests into productive obsessions, now is the time to unleash your brain and let it work beautifully.

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