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Discipline vs. Obsession

8 June 2021

I had an interesting short conversation yesterday based off of this tweet:

And my conversation partner said: “Well, you are obsessive about it.” Which is interesting for two reasons: their feelings about what constitutes obsession, yes, but also how I’ve represented my own behavior to them. I definitely talk about counting my calories, and explain how I measure things and weigh things, etc., and I can understand how that may come across as excessive to someone. And for the rest of this discussion, I’ll expand on ideas that got started in the conversation – but no more direct references. I don’t mean to imply that my conversational partner holds any of the specific attitudes I might go on to describe below.

But I am absolutely not obsessive about my calorie counting. And I say that as someone who has experienced and recovered from pathological obsession. I know what pathological obsession feels like, and this isn’t it. So I think it’s worth trying to informally define the difference between being disciplined about something, and being obsessive about it.

Discipline, or thoroughness, to me, means being careful and detailed, and comprehensive. It’s interesting that we often describe discipline and being detail-oriented as an asset professionally, and a shortcoming personally. Make it to work on time, prepared, and ready every single day? You’re a model employee. But commit to a 5 mile run every day at 5pm, and arrange your schedule around meeting that personal obligation? You’re a fanatic.

Discipline means committing to specific behaviors that are beneficial even when they’re not fun, or I don’t feel the immediate motivation. Healthy food when I want a pizza. A run when I feel like loafing. And yes, measuring the peanut butter so I don’t end up eating 300 calories when I meant to eat 200 (a difference of a mere tablespoon).

Obsession is an entirely different animal. It means, first of all, that the activity disrupts my life and interferes with my ability to do the things I want to do. My obsession with alcohol was like this: I would perseverate and panic about how I could acquire it. I would hide it around the house, I would not go places I couldn’t drink. I arranged my life around the thing, rather than choosing the life I wanted, and working towards that.

My calorie counting isn’t obsessive in the least. I don’t think about it when I’m not doing it. I don’t refuse to eat foods that I don’t know the exact calorie value of. Saturday I went out for a seven course tasting menu and just guessed, “Eh, probably about 1000 calories, whatever.” When I weigh my yogurt into a bowl, I lick the spoon and don’t try to figure out how many grams of yogurt that was. I don’t care.

My calorie counting is liberating, not confining. I am able to achieve my goals for having the body and metabolism I desire while still enabling myself to eat any types of food I want. Either by having reasonable portions or by relegating them to my weekly cheat day. The result has been that my life is less anxious, less frustrating, and I like my body better.

I’ve lost 22 pounds now, in two and a half months. I haven’t starved, I haven’t been miserable. I’ve been thorough. It’s been work, but it hasn’t been an agonizing slog.

I think often times, we want to see people who are successful at things we ourselves are not as secretly miserable or mentally ill. “That person must work 90 hours a week to be so financially successful, how sad for them they don’t get to enjoy their money.” “Oh they lost weight, sure, but look how horrible they feel, starving all the time and obsessing about each leaf of lettuce.” It makes us feel better about our own inability to achieve at that level.

And obviously, there are people with disordered eating, exercise, and professional habits. But fundamentally, I think a lot of us want to see all kinds of success as either unattainable or attended by secret misery. A person who saves and invests is a pinchpenny who never enjoys the fruits of their wealth. A person who is very fit is starving themselves and relentlessly agitated. It’s an attitude that’s about protecting ourselves from ourselves. From our own challenges with committing to something and seeing it through. From making lifelong changes that sometimes means denying base instincts.

There’s a whole swath of industries and advocacies devoted to finding, or demanding, easier ways to do things. Insisting that success is accessible without effort. We should all have high paying jobs without having to work long hours or attain advanced credentials. We should all be able to be fit and sleek without calorie counting or exercise. We should all be healthy and considered attractive without investments of effort in our physical bodies. But it’s all just cymbals.

You don’t have to be obsessed to achieve – but you do have to be thorough and detailed. In any endeavor. It’s not easy for anyone, but that doesn’t mean that those who achieve live lives of hardship or insanity. It’s about cultivating a lifestyle of taking satisfaction in productive effort.

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