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Unproductive obsessions are fueled by anxiety and distorted thinking. Nobody wants or deserves those kinds of obsessions, obsessions with things like not catching a fatal disease or not burning down your house because you forgot to turn a stovetop burner off. Those obsessions grab billions of our neurons, prevent us from thinking straight, and make us miserable.

Productive obsessions, on the other hand, also grab billions of our neurons—but in the service of thoughts that we do want. They aren’t fueled by anxiety but by our conscious decisions about where we want to apply our brain’s power. Because people are generally anxious, most obsessions are of the unproductive sort. But when you decide to take charge of what you want to think about, when you get a grip on your mind, and when you pursue trains of thought that actually serve you, you begin to create productive obsessions and return your brain’s power to your own control.

Why are we so resistant to obsessing productively? Why do we have so much trouble getting passionate and obsessed in the service of our own good thoughts? The reason is analogous to the following: our body would love exercise but that doesn’t mean that we get up and exercise. We may dream of painting but that doesn’t mean that we head straight to the studio. Human beings are surprisingly resistant to doing the things that they really want and need to do.

The same is true of productive obsessions. Most people experience thinking as hard, nerve-wracking work and have to learn the habit of focusing their brain on a subject of their own choosing. At first, they’re resistant and keep letting their brain dart around from idea to idea and project to project. But once they begin to see the rewards—that life is more interesting, that they feel engaged, that boredom has been replaced by passion, and that real work gets completed—they begin to look forward to devoting themselves to their own productive thoughts.

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