09/27/2010 08:03 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

8 Ways to Obsess Productively

In my last post I explained that there is a world of difference between unproductive obsessions rooted in anxiety and productive obsessions that arise from our meaning-making needs. The first are an abomination; the second are the brain's glory. Today let's look at some criteria for choosing your productive obsession.

The productive obsession you want to cultivate should be rooted in love, interest and a desire to better our shared circumstances. It should be large rather than small, large in the sense that it matches your desires, dreams, goals and ambitions. Choose an obsession that will gratify you--that genuinely connects to your interests, passions and existential needs.

Choose an obsession with some guts--one that has some weight, some meat on the bones, some heft to it. Choose an obsession with the potential to galvanize you--you want to be awakened, experience your adrenaline flowing, feel revved up and driven. Choose an obsession that amounts to a gamble--if you're too sure of the outcome, you're likely to bore yourself.

Choose an obsession with a nameable goal built in. It is one thing to obsess about the nature of warfare and play out mock battles in your head. It is another thing to obsess about recreating the Battle of Gettysburg in a book, filming a documentary about a current civil war somewhere in the world, or presenting the best available information to the students you teach. The first obsession amounts to pleasant fantasy; each of the other three point you in the direction of reality.

Obsess about an idea and not about you. There is a world of difference between obsessing on "I wonder if I have it in me to raise money?" and "I wonder how to get third world libraries funded?" There is a profound difference between obsessing on "I wonder if I have any talent" and "I wonder how I can translate my love of the desert into concrete images?" It is a very different matter to obsess about you and to obsess about the thing you want to tackle. The first is an unproductive obsession; the second is a productive one.

Choose an obsession that feels worthy and grownup.
It is easy to argue that our obsession with puzzles "keeps our mind alert" or that our obsession with video games "sharpens our reflexes." But we know exactly to what extent these aren't worthy, grownup obsessions. They pass the time in exactly the same way that watching a little television passes the time. Such pseudo-productive obsessions may serve to pass the time but they do not otherwise serve us. They are splendid in moderation but they are not productive obsession material.

Choose an obsession that you can really gnaw on. You want to feel involved, tested and stretched. Choose an idea that is as large and as great as you are. Even if you do not feel large and great, try to ignore your doubts and dispute your negative self-talk and choose something that you can really bite into.

Choose an obsession that is ethically good
--one that meets your own moral standards. You may have no real way of knowing if the novel you intend to write or the business you intend to start will prove an ethical plus or a minus. Is obsessing a laser into existence a good thing or a bad thing, given that it can be used both by armies and by doctors? Still, try to intuit if your obsession is likely to amount to a moral plus or minus; and if it is long on interest but short on values, skip it. Why violate your own principles for the sake of maintaining your interest when there are other, worthier obsessions to pursue?

Choose an obsession congruent with your current self. People often possess ideas they've harbored for a long time that either they've pursued to some extent already--the quarter-written novel, the half-finished degree in architecture--or that they have long imagined pursuing but never gotten around to starting. Before you choose as your productive obsession an idea from the past, make sure that you are genuinely passionate about it and that it is relevant to your current meaning needs.

Choose an obsession that taps into your natural genius, talents and abilities. Do you have a green thumb but have never allowed yourself to obsess gardens into existence? Are you a frustrated math whiz who could do the math associated with cosmology if you set your mind to it? If you have a choice between two equally attractive productive obsessions, why not choose the one that allows you to make use of your gifts?

Let's put all of the above into one "g" sentence: Choose a grand, good, goal-oriented, growth-oriented, gratifying, grownup, gutsy productive obsession that allows you to make use of your natural genius and your gifts, that provides you with something to really grapple with and gnaw on, and that is more a gamble than guaranteed. Whatever its particulars, make it your own. Get it named--and get ready to let it invade you.

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