Person with OCD trying to be productive at workShare on Pinterest
Some people with OCD find it hard to be productive at school or work. (Illustration by Brittany England)

When many people picture OCD, they imagine a person who’s extremely uptight, obsessed with neatness and cleanliness, and very organized.

I’ve written before about how OCD is deeply misunderstood. Everybody’s heard about it, but few people understand it. Even those of us who have OCD can find it hard to wrap our heads around it.

Fastidious, detail-oriented people are often jokingly described as “so OCD.” It’s also often assumed that people with OCD are efficient, diligent, and productive workers.

While this might accurately describe some people with OCD — remember, we’re all different — it’s certainly not true for all of us.

In fact, many people with OCD find it hard to be productive. Our obsessions and compulsions can be time consuming and exhausting, and perfectionism-driven OCD can make it difficult to execute tasks.

I’ve experienced this first-hand. In fact, it’s something I struggled with for many years.

I once did 5,128 steps in a single morning, according to my fitness tracker. I wasn’t on the treadmill or walking around my neighborhood. I was pacing around my house, trying to get rid of the image of me killing myself (an obsession).

I didn’t want to hurt myself. I wanted to live. But these unwanted images kept coming and becoming more intense. The only way I could soothe myself was by pacing up and down my house (a compulsion).

This compulsion took up a great deal of time. Although my fitness tracker considered it a good feat, my to-do list was suffering: I had three deadlines that afternoon and I needed to work on them.

But every time I sat down to focus, I couldn’t. I was wracked by these terrible, painful images. So instead, I paced.

That’s just one example of how OCD used to affect my productivity. At the time, I wasn’t seeing a therapist and I didn’t realize I had OCD: I thought I was just procrastinating.

Looking back, a lot of my challenges with productivity stemmed from my obsessions and compulsions. When my compulsions to pace or twist my wrists weren’t taking up my time, my obsessions were making it hard to focus on work.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone: Many people with OCD have difficulties with productivity.

How OCD can affect productivity

OCD is different for different people. While some people have obsessions and compulsions around cleanliness, others have obsessions and compulsions around harm (rooted in a fear of hurting themselves or others).

Similarly, some people have obsessions and compulsions that relate to work.

Let’s say you’re a bookkeeper. You might fear that if you don’t do your work perfectly, you’ll end up losing your job and becoming destitute.

To soothe your anxiety, you spend hours checking and rechecking your work. You also ask your colleagues to check your work. This slows you down.

OCD can affect your productivity, even if your obsessions and compulsions don’t directly relate to work.

Compulsions tend to take a lot of time and energy out of your day, which can also affect productivity.

For example, someone might have a “checking” compulsion: They feel the urge to check that all their doors are locked 10 times before leaving the house.

As a result, they might often be late for work, and when they eventually get to work, they already feel anxious and unable to focus.

As another example, let’s say that someone has constant intrusive thoughts about self-harm. Although they don’t want to hurt themselves, they can’t shake off the thoughts. They feel the need to pace up and down in order to soothe those thoughts. This makes it difficult for them to sit down and focus in the office.

Even if we take compulsions out of the equation, obsessions are exhausting.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve lost because I’ve been obsessing about past events or religious imagery.

And the problem is that being unproductive can be stressful. Stress can worsen symptoms of mental illnesses, including OCD.

In my case, I always felt like I fell into a vicious cycle: Stress made it harder for me to focus, and my lack of focus increased my stress levels.

OCD, perfectionism, and productivity

Many people with OCD are also perfectionists. While some perfectionists don’t have OCD, and some people with OCD aren’t perfectionists, you might find that perfectionism fuels some obsessions and compulsions.

In this context, perfectionism means the belief that perfection is both necessary and possible to attain. In other words, perfectionists are people who feel that they must be flawless. They struggle to accept anything less than perfect.

Because of this, many people might assume that perfectionists are productive. After all, they want their work to be done correctly and on time, right?

But perfectionism can also get in the way of productivity.

Here are some examples of why perfectionists might find it hard to execute tasks:

  • We’re so afraid of doing something “incorrectly,” we might not get started at all.
  • We often avoid taking necessary risks, whether they’re big, like switching careers, or small, like sending an email without getting someone else to proofread it.
  • We procrastinate because we’re afraid of failure. This fear makes it easy to overthink projects, so we delay starting them.
  • We might have a hard time delegating or automating tasks because we feel the need to control everything.

For those of us who have perfectionism-fueled OCD, it’s a double whammy: Both perfectionism and OCD can affect productivity.

What’s worse is that most of us feel extremely ashamed about it. This guilt only serves to make us feel worse, which can, in turn, make it harder to take action.

There is hope

I’m the sort of person who really, genuinely enjoys work. I love what I do, I love being productive, and I love creating things.

Because of this, I’ve tried nearly every productivity hack in the book. I’ve used all the project management software, I’ve read about every focus technique, and I’ve used every planning method.

But before I accepted that I had OCD, none of those methods really worked. I’d meet nearly every deadline and finish every deliverable to a high standard, yes, but I was stressed and miserable most of the time.

Because my problem wasn’t that I was unmotivated. Instead, I was motivated by fear.

My problem wasn’t that I was disorganized or lazy. Instead, I had a serious, untreated mental illness.

Eventually, I managed to turn it around. I now feel like OCD hardly ever gets in the way of my productivity.

I attribute this to the following:

  • Therapy. Although I seldom discuss my productivity levels with my therapist, my mental health is far better because I’m in therapy. As a result, my obsessions no longer interfere with work.
  • Managing stress. Stress can worsen the symptoms of OCD. I’ve found it helpful to accept that work can be stressful, and then use healthy ways to cope with this stress.
  • Tackling perfectionism. Most productivity advice doesn’t actually cater to perfectionists. A resource I recommend is The Perfectionism Project, a podcast by Sam Laura Brown. This podcast has helped me understand how perfectionism affects my work.
  • Self-compassion. Instead of beating myself up for being unproductive, I try to figure out why that is. When work is tough, I try to be kind to myself instead of self-punishing.

OCD can affect every aspect of your life, from your home life to your relationships and your career.

The good news is that healing from OCD also affects every aspect of your life.

Patient, compassionate treatment can benefit you in countless ways, including your productivity at work.