Stop Obsessing

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

As powerful as it is, obsession can also be a troubling occupation of the mind. Left unchecked, it also causes obstacles, or even causes projects—and people—to eventually self-destruct. Obsession can raise a standard so far beyond acceptable that nobody can meet it, creating a creative block. Many people become slaves to their obsessions, caving in to the impulse to push for perfection. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, this results in a complete piece of work. Many other times, though, it causes the work to self-destruct.

The Pixar team, inarguably masters at the crafts of storytelling and animation, also face the over-obsession challenge. Sometimes, people on their team spend days or weeks on a detail that none of the viewers ever actually see. In the 2001 blockbuster Monsters Inc., there is a three-second segment where Boo knocks over a stack of CDs. Pixar artists created a CD cover, as well as a program to change rendering for each of over 90 CDs, for a three-second segment. It was a level of detail that very few, if any, viewers would notice. “Clearly, something in our process had broken—the desire for quality had gone well beyond rationality,” writes Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc.*

We can practice loosening the grip obsession can have on us in the creative process. In practice, this means declaring something that you feel is acceptable—but incomplete—to be done. If it’s not acceptable, scope it down by omitting the incomplete details.

If you really can’t bring yourself to do this—if only it were so easy!—set a timer for 45 minutes to complete the omissions and transition the rest of the work together, and declare the work done after the timer goes off. Save and title this version of the work.

If you’re still not happy with it, pick up where you’d started and create a different version tomorrow. Treat the detail or aspect that you’re obsessing over like a brand new starting point for different versions of your work each day.

Make notes of the process, including how letting go feels, what you’re afraid of, what imperfection means to you, and what you’re comfortable and not comfortable compromising on. Through this journaling process, you’ll learn the aspects of obsession that are driving you and getting in the way of you relaxing, and doing your best work as a result.

Or flip this prompt: Obsess over Details

Know Your Stage

In 1926, London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas published The Art of Thought, in which he described a four-stage creative process. The first three stages were adapted from physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, and Wallas’s descriptions are in quotes:

Preparation: “the stage during which the problem was ‘investigated … in all directions’”—think about exercises, rituals, and routines that stimulate your mind.

Incubation: “not consciously thinking about the problem”—this is about consciously letting go of the problem and relaxing your mind. It might involve going for a walk in nature, or relaxing in a shower.

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