Obsessive or Productive? The Difference Between Being Focused and Rigid

“Choose your productive obsession right now. Maybe you know exactly which one to select. Even if you’re positive, give your idea a once-over and make sure it meets your current meaning needs and intentions…” — Eric and Ann Maisel, authors of Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions.

“Being taught that more is better, we’re jumping to erroneous conclusions way too early, and all of a sudden being more productive has no limits in terms of enough.” — Slavko Desik, business blogger.

Obsessive or Productive? The Difference Between Being Focused and Rigid by Laura StackWhile superior productivity is neither simple nor easily reduced to its component parts, most people would universally agree that productivity requires a focus on priorities—a focus that excludes the extraneous, stripping away anything that doesn’t contribute to a specific goal. Some might even call such a tight focus an obsession. I’ve been called obsessive multiple times. After one such accusation last week, I decided to explore it a bit more to discover if it’s a bad thing.

An obsession is a set of repetitive thoughts at the forefront of your mind, holding your imagination hostage and compelling you to focus your efforts on a single subject. Hmmm…defined that way, productive focus could indeed be an obsession, if you’re concentrating solely on a high-value activity. Perhaps the biggest difference is that you can turn off your productive focus at will and put it away at the end of the day, just like any other work tool.

Perhaps this is where people confuse the issue. Can you put your work “away”? Do you work when you ought to rest, or do you constantly think about what you “should” be doing when you’re not working? Have you tied your sense of self-worth to your to-do list? Do you think of yourself as little more than what you can accomplish?

Perhaps the distinction of control is where the confusion over “obsession” stems from. Yes, I can put my work away and stop thinking about it. I can go to my son’s ballgame and not touch my phone. I block off six weeks of vacation a year and let my office manager hold down the fort. But when I’m working, I’d agree my productive focus is obsessive. When I’m not working, I’m obsessed with not working. I might check into the office, but I do it by design, not by default.

Sustainable Competence

Many psychologists believe obsessions are by definition self-destructive. Some buck the trend by insisting “productive obsessions” can motivate you, while allowing you to maintain control of your environment and fate. I see merit in both arguments, but in my experience, you can’t sustain even productive obsessions for long. You can’t have a productive focus non-stop; you are not a robot. It’s better for you (and your organization) if you burn steadily and long, rather than flaring briefly and winking out.

In this spirit, I’ve prepared a brief list of characteristics that define positively obsessed individuals—those well-aligned with organizational goals—who contribute for years or decades at a high level of competence without burning out. These are the real superstars and the backbones of any organization. Among other things, they:

1. Have a realistic attitude toward their to-do lists. While you should regard the top-priority items on your lists as contracts with yourself, at the same time you have to be very choosy about what you allow into that category in the first place. Some of the items on your daily task list should represent tasks you’d like to accomplish but can move forward as unexpected, high-value opportunities crop up. You should be organized enough to make conscious choices between your want to-do list and your have to-do list. If you obsess with getting every single item done every single day, you’ll only flame out with 14-hour days with a dubious return on time.

2. Remember “work” and “home.” When you “go home” in the evening (even if you work at home), be present with your loved ones. Stop checking email and turn off your cell phone and your work brain. You need time to handle personal business, plan family time, pay bills, go to the grocery story, put away the towels, and rest. A sense of order, completeness, and the ability to breathe will help you focus better tomorrow. Get a hobby! Find fun things to do! Shake yourself! Do something that occupies your mind so completely, you won’t even have a chance to think about work.

3. Avoid micromanaging and perfectionism. One could argue that these issues represent different facets of the same problem, because of the obsession and distrust that underlie both. Micromanagers aim it outward; perfectionists keep it inside. Either way, they create more work for you, and make you miserable—especially if you attempt to micromanage another person toward perfection. Who cares how the towels are folded! Less for you to do…shhhhhh don’t say anything…go soak in a bath or throw some weights around instead.

4. Take care of themselves. I keep returning to this point, because I believe it deserves a heavy emphasis. In our race to get ahead, we often sacrifice the time we’d normally use to maintain our health. Are you the last thing on your to-do list? Do you sacrifice yourself on other peoples’ altars? Trust me—it’s just not worth it. You need a full night’s sleep to stay mentally sharp. Eat properly, on a regular schedule—don’t just grab something from the snack machine whenever you feel hungry. If your refrigerator is empty, your time priorities are out of whack. Watch your weight. Exercise regularly. Sleep. Stay sane. Go out with your friends—especially “when you just don’t have time”—it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.

Calm, Cool, and In Control

If you find yourself wondering if you’ve fallen prey to a productivity obsession, ask yourself this: “Do I feel in control of my situation?” If you choose to work 70 hours this week because current circumstances demand it, that’s one thing. But if you always work 70-hour weeks and don’t really know why, or if you’ve compromised your health, something’s wrong. Think long and hard about your work/life balance and apply these tips to your workflow process.

Am I obsessed? Yes—about finding a productive focus.



  1. Patti W. says:

    I love this post! Thought provoking and informative! Laura – thank you!

  2. Brilliant article. I think many people border on this line and I love the clarity you have given between the two.
    Point number 2 is something I’m working on, not checking my email after working hours, having email on your phone is great, but one has to know when to turn it off!
    Thanks Laura!

    • LauraStack says:

      Thank you, Kristin! It is so important to know when to turn it off. Make it a productive day!