I’m mildly OCD and I love it. Except when it’s killing me.
The ability to pay obsessive attention to details, plans and schedules has brought me more success and mental anguish than any of my other personality traits. It’s a yin and yang state of affairs; it underlies both my ability to control food bingeing (good), but also aggravates my struggles with depression (not so good). And the pro/con list goes on.
I would not wish it on anyone else, but I would never want to be without it.
Here’s my personal owner’s guide to OCD: what I’ve learned about the care and maintenance of an awesomely efficient piece of mental machinery, with insights on how I keep it from running out of control.
Let’s get into some details… maybe you’ll recognize yourself or someone you know.
The powers and perils of list making
I love lists. No, love is not a strong enough word. I am utterly enthralled with lists.
I have a task list for what I’m doing every day of the year. Every. Single. Day. Yes, even vacation days and Christmas day. In fact, when I started drafting this article on the morning of Christmas day, 1 my list said “work on article” right before “open stockings.” 2
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Why did my list say “work on article” when I do that every day? Because how are you going to cross out an accomplishment if it’s not on a list? And if you can’t cross something out, did it even occur? I don’t know, because I’ve never tested that hypothesis.
And speaking of crossing out, it’s one of the reasons I have a written list each day, in addition to my Gmail calendar, lists I keep in an app and vast numbers of specific task lists kept in Word documents and OneNote. Crossing out is an event for me, which is why I do it with a Sharpie. Here’s a representative list at the beginning of a day:
Here’s the same list at the end of the day:
Here’s a sample agenda from a vacation plan:
And a part of a packing list:
And a project list (this is part of my monthly business bookkeeping):
Sick, right? But I cannot be any other way. Not having a list causes me far more stress than having one. This started big time in college. That was when I first started making lists and putting little check-off boxes next to the tasks. That was about 100,000 lists ago.
My list-making superpower
A list is just the distillation of a plan, and I am all about planning and getting things done.
From the smallest detail (“refill prescription”) to the largest project (“remodel basement”), if I put something on a list it ABSOLUTELY WILL GET DONE. Period. I never remove something from a list unless it is crossed off as completed or moved to another list.
I’ve accomplished a vast number of things throughout my life based upon this obsessive-compulsive need to cross completed things off a list.
My list-making dark side
Believe me, following a list can be utterly exhausting. Everything I’ve done has formed me into the person I am today… but, oh, the unnecessary and overdone things to which I have applied myself.
Not to mention a list-driven sense of failure. If your OCD manifests in list-making, then it’s a special kind of torment to arrive at the end of the day with tasks not crossed off. It causes you to consider the day a failure no matter how much was accomplished.
I finally learned from decades of painful experience how much to put on my daily list: enough to challenge me, but not so much that it crushes me.Mild OCD can be an awesome superpower… with a constantly lurking dark side. Click To Tweet
Everything on time, in time and never late
I may love lists, but I’m obsessed with time, the temporal relationship that everything has to everything else. You’ll note that my vacation lists are set up as timelines and that times are in red on my written tasks.
It goes beyond planning, though. I often feel that I sense time as a tangible thing, something slipping by me, perceived like the wind across my face. I always feel as if I’m on a timeline of sorts, moving from the past to a future I can almost predict based on what has come before. 4
And I have to know what time it is, right now. It’s why I always wear a watch… it takes too long to pull my phone out of my pocket.
Not surprisingly, one of my greatest stressors is being late. Here’s a phrase I recall from my Army days: “If you aren’t early, you’re late.” Words to live by. I’m not sure I could ever live in a society where being on time is not highly valued.
My time-sense superpower
The military first introduced me to the concept of backward planning my actions from a deadline in the future. A habit of backward planning ensures that I always leave the house in time to catch airline flights 5 of course, but it’s more than that: when it’s applied to a goal months or years away, it makes it feel like I’m actually changing the future, bending it to my will by executing a plan to make it happen.
So, yeah… a keen sense of time and timing can make plans very effective and also ensure that you don’t miss out simply because you couldn’t get somewhere by a deadline.
My time-sense dark side
But you can also feel your life slipping away. Once you’ve reached the midpoint of life, if you are paying any attention at all, you can see the end. To be clear, I’m talking about “the end of your life.” Not the precise end, but by age fifty you’ve accumulated enough data to place it pretty accurately. And the time between now and then doesn’t seem so long anymore like it did when you were twenty or thirty.
It’s best not to think too much about it. But I do… the stress of showing up at the final checkpoint with undone things on my list. Unsurprisingly, this can sometimes trigger a bout of depression.
Location, location, location
Just as I must know my position in time, I feel compelled to know my location in space. How does “where I am” relate to “everywhere else?”
Geography was the easiest course I took in college, and had I been thinking clearly I would have majored in cartography so I could spend my life with one of my greatest loves: maps.
My location superpower
I do a thorough map reconnaissance before going on trips of any sort, including screen shots on my vacation agendas:
When traveling, I feel compelled to check everything out, near and far. I feel like I can’t relax until I understand how hotel hallways, side streets, freeways and points of interest all interconnect in a web of local geography. I was very good at land navigation in the Army, a skill that, alas, I don’t exercise much anymore (because GPS is even better).
I’d do great in an errand-running contest since I can pack the greatest number of stops into the least amount of time possible.
My location dark side
Have you ever traveled with someone who is more concerned with crossing places to see off a list than actually experiencing them while traveling? It’s even less fun than it sounds. (I’m working on it.)
If I had my way, I’d take endless side trips while driving, just to be able to visualize places on my maps. Fortunately for the length of our excursions, Betsy does 99% of the driving whenever we go anywhere and her style is point A to point B. So I Google places and visualize them, which is usually good enough.
I like to have things displayed so I can see them at a glance… in more than one place…
Labels are good things because, you know, why not…
And packing requires a full layout before putting things in the suitcase…
I do have a few things I can’t walk by without fixing, such as…
And these chocolate bars at the checkout counter at Trader Joe’s. I never buy any, but I always make sure they are properly organized for the next customer:
Generally, I can get a firm grip on myself and walk away from a lot of disordered situations. Most of the time.
My organization superpower
The first step in organizing anything is to get rid of unnecessary stuff. Once you throw out the cruft 6 it’s much easier to organize what’s left. And much of what we own is, indeed, cruft. So separating the wheat from the cruft, to torture a metaphor, is a valuable life skill.Effective organizing is not merely rearranging what you have, but arranging what you need. Click To Tweet
My organization dark side
I’ve thought long and hard about this and can’t find any dark side. I’m kidding. But organization IS one of those things that everyone – even disorganized people – appreciates. If an office potluck or a doctor’s office or a book or a presidential campaign lacks organization, everyone comments on it, whether or not they could do any better themselves.
But… over-organizing is a tremendous waste of time…
My mild OCD superpower
There are only a few quotes that I laminate for my eye-level bulletin board. (Yes, laminating is awesome. So tidy.) The last sentence of this Thomas Jefferson quote 7 was the first one that ever got that honor:
Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.
My particular combination of obsessive-compulsive tendencies has allowed me to pull off some major projects in my life. A small sample…
In service to my family:
A complete remodel of my basement, including plumbing, wiring and sewage lift station.
In service to others:
Providing three meals a day for thirty people on a Scout rafting trip through a wilderness area, from menu planning through cooking and serving. No perishable food, everything waterproofed for transport in the rafts, and no repeated meals. Warning: if you do this sort of thing once, you’ll be doing it for the rest of the time you are with the organization.
In service to my own goals:
Building a profitable internet business from scratch, all the way from “this looks easy” through five years of “this is incredibly harder than it looks.” Classroom Caboodle (based on my awesome teacher-wife’s insights into elementary education) is actually a service to the family budget, but it has definitely been a personal goal to be self-employed with an online business. 8
Over time, I’ve learned to control my mild OCD to get important stuff done vs. just getting random stuff overdone. I’ve learned that getting some things 80% done (to my standards), and letting it rest a bit helps clarify how much is left to do. A little disorder in life isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But when necessary, I can pull out the big gun, so to speak. Another quote, this one from Seth Godin, guides my approach to many things:
Complicated projects, on time, is a niche that is not very crowded.
And sometimes I just release myself to it and enjoy the process of overdoing something trivial. Like, for example, this laminated guide I made to document how to turn our yard sprinklers on in the spring and off in the fall:
The dark side of my OCD
The thing is, I can’t turn it off, even when it gets exhausting to me and to those around me. A life without spontaneity is missing some key ingredients.
Drilling down to the details in all situations can also have social consequences. It’s easy for me to ask far too many questions of people, to the point where it’s not only irritating but insulting. Many people haven’t thought as deeply about their situation as my questions demand.
And don’t get me started on the primary complaint of anyone who is organized at work. Every boss likes an organized employee and will “work the good horse to death.” As I outlined in my article on overwork, It’s pure socialism in the midst of capitalism. From Karl Marx:
From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
When you have OCD abilities, bosses who desperately need to climb the corporate ladder will squeeze every last drop out of you in service to their own goals. False motivation, guilt, coercion… everything (except more money) is fair game when a boss’s career advancement is on the line.
I’ve devoted thousands of hours to pointless projects at work, and it took a depressingly long time to figure out what was going on.A special circle in hell is reserved for those who take advantage of other’s OCD tendencies. Click To Tweet
I’ve made a lot of progress. Still, I fear that as I get older I may gradually shrink from doing new things because of the effort of figuring them out completely. Or I’ll perseverate 9 on things to the point where I’ll just spin my wheels in place without moving forward. These are things that I’m constantly on guard against.
Video: The View from the Mountain Top
4 minutes, 6 seconds | subtitles available
Safeguarding your superpower
We live our lives balanced between different mental states, tipping at times toward extremes but usually returning to our center. I think mild OCD is my center. Maybe it’s yours, too.
If mild OCD is your center – your superpower – then own it and love it. But as Spiderman says, with great power comes great responsibility… to others in your life, but also, primarily, to yourself.
Any compulsion – even a compulsion to make plans and get stuff done – can become debilitating. The trick is the balancing act. It’s like keeping a broomstick vertical in the palm of your hand, recognizing when you are tipping too far in one direction and knowing when to bring yourself back. And especially knowing when you need help to do so.
Until next time… remember: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.