How Can We Distinguish Focus from Obsession?

What is the difference between a focus and an obsession? Here are three signs that might help distinguish one from the other.

The Virtues of Focus

It seems that the virtues of focus are widely appreciated. Those from the more rational perspective preach the virtues of prioritising. Much advice is given on how to avoid procrastination, along with ‘staying motivated’ to achieve the goals which are the focus.

Those from a more ‘new age’ perspective remind us to not let the mind distract us. It is better to stay in the here and now. Our focus is spirit, and our mind should not get in the way.

My purpose, at the moment, is not to critique these perspectives — I think they both have their truth — but rather to point out that they both value focus.

Neither do I want to deny the importance of focus: we may well need to do one thing and not others. (This is a pretty good description of life I think: we could always be doing something else.) In this sense focus is helpful and unavoidable: we exclude almost all of life, the universe and everything to focus on this one thing we are doing.

One Thing at a Time

We focus on one thing at a time. But while I am focused on typing this, there are many keys, rules of grammar and spelling and so on (all of these parts go to make up the whole of my typing). Whatever we are focused on can almost certainly be broken down into smaller parts, but for our focus it is one thing. Our focus can shift rapidly; I am distracted by a bird song for a fraction of a second, I hear the fridge’s motor turn on and then return to typing. For that fraction of a second I am no longer focused on typing, I am listening to other sounds. (Teenagers don’t do two things at once — say watching TV and doing their homework. What they do is switch rapidly between them.) And our focus is different to our habits. It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, and it is possible to be doing both these without focusing on either of them; our habits allow us to do things without focusing on them.


Which brings me to my question about all this: what is the difference between a focus and an obsession?

If I think about a new shirt all day is this an obsession? What if I’m a fashion designer? Being in love certainly seems to be a kind of obsession — but one that we tend to evaluate positively. The wife of Richard Feynman (a physicist) remarked that, “Do you know, the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up in the morning is equations!” There doesn’t seem to be some kind of ‘right amount’ that we should focus on something.

I’m not sure that there is an absolute that divides focus from obsession. One possibility is when our focus causes us to neglect our other needs. Perhaps being in love is unhealthy when we don’t eat. And yet, what about Gandhi’s fast unto death? Was this obsessive or admirable (or both?)? Does it make a difference that he was fasting for a particular way of voting for the Untouchables and that the Untouchables’ representatives told him that they didn’t want that kind of voting anyway?

If we regard this as obsessive (I sure do), then perhaps our intuition is that obsession has to do with having a sense of the ends that our behaviour serves. If we are so driven that what we do gets in the way of achieving it, then sticking with this means looks very likely to be obsessive.

Another possibility is taking an ‘internal’ perspective. Obsession is when we spend so much of our energy blocking out other needs that we can no longer function. Our attention tends to be captured by events around us. Though we focus on one thing there are parts of us ‘keeping an ear out’ for other things. The most common example is hearing our name at a party. A more serious example is our becoming rapidly aware of a danger that we hadn’t noticed when driving.

This kind of exclusion of everything else is a kind of ‘trance’. Therapeutic hypnosis uses this kind of state. So perhaps being obsessed for a brief time can be therapeutic.

It seems to me that while we may not be able to come up with hard and fast rules to distinguish a focus from an obsession, we can probably formulate some signs to look for. It seems to me that there are at least three:

  1. Does what I’m doing get in the way of what I am hoping to achieve? If so: am I willing to stop doing it? If not, why not?
  2. Do I spend a lot of my energy fighting off distractions to what I want to do? Is it taking me so much time and energy to persist that I am exhausted and neglecting other needs?
  3. Do I, in some way, feel or believe that if I get or do this one thing then everything will be OK? (This may be true depending on the situation and what it is, but I think it’s useful to question it.)

Do you feel there are times in your life when you have been obsessive? Do you have a sense of what this was about for you? Did you experience it as a positive or negative time? If you have experienced an obsession as a negative thing, are the ways that you have overcome it? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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