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Why Details Can’t Go Before the Big Picture

Why Details Can’t Go Before the Big Picture

I’m sure you’ve come across the expression: “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” This simply means that if you’re walking within a forest, you can only see trees around you – not the forest itself.

This type of scenario is actually quite common in life.

For example, imagine for a moment that you’re writing an important document or thesis. Several hours of focused work sees you making great progress. You’re really in the flow. Unfortunately, you interrupt your fluent writing to fix a typo. This then leads to you to choose to rephrase the whole sentence. Which then leads to you changing the whole paragraph. Ultimately, this starts you thinking that you need to change the content of your project in it entirety.

In other words, you’ve allowed yourself to become lost in the details. Your initial clear end goal is now lying in tatters. You can no longer see the forest for the trees.

Now, to be fair, our vision of what we want, who it is that we want to grow into and where we’re going is blurry most of the time. For many people, it may even be a big question mark. In our daily grind, we can work feverishly, yet aimlessly – unsure of how it all fits together. We may find ourselves keeping our head down and working very hard on small things that don’t contribute much to our ultimate goal.

This can happen easily to anyone, as our brain is wired to see things in the short-term. We’re not so good at seeing the big picture and long-term things.

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Seek the big picture first

The big picture is all you should be concerned about in the beginning.

One reason for doing this, is that you often won’t recognize the details that matter most until after you’ve created your end goal. Once you start building on the big picture, you’ll begin to see what’s missing. And it’s only at this time that you need to pay attention to the details.

I want you to remember the following:

Once you’ve decided on the big picture, the rest becomes easier as you just need to fill in the gaps required to reach your target.[1]

Don’t get me wrong, details are important and definitely make a difference. However, becoming obsessed with details too early leads to endless disagreements, changes, meetings and delays. You’ll doom your project from the very start by putting your focus on things that don’t really matter. You’ll also waste time on decisions that are likely to change.

When you start with details, you can end up expending your energy on the wrong things. This is unproductive and will leave you feeling exhausted. It may also lead you into a state called ‘analysis paralysis’. This is where you over-analyze or over-think a situation or decision, with the result that you become frozen and end up taking no action.[2]

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Hiten Shah, the co-founder of KISSmetrics, admitted recently that he and his business partner wasted $1 million on setting up a web hosting company that never launched. Shah said,

“We were perfectionist so we built the best thing we could without even understanding what our customers cared about.”

    Fortunately, they learned from this loss, and have now built a hugely successful company that spends smart, optimizes learning and focuses on customer delight.[3]

    The big picture essentials

    I don’t want you to ever lose $1 million dollars, so please read on to discover how to build and focus on the perfect big picture.

    1. Make room to think and master your preferences

    If you allow yourself to constantly just complete what’s next on your to-do list, you’ll never find the time to think about the big picture. Instead, block off time on your calendar based on when you’re at your most creative, and use that time to think through your goals and priorities. Trust me, you’ll never have a bold, vivid picture in your mind if you don’t assign time to get a clear picture in your mind of your ultimate goals.

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    I remember years ago working with a colleague who always looked busy. It didn’t matter whether it was the first hour of the working day or the last, he appeared to have genuine focus and energy. But there was a problem. Despite his effort, he wasn’t completing projects on time or delivering results as expected. I sat down with him one day and asked him what the problem was.

    He immediately stated that he just had so many things to deal with that he couldn’t find enough time in the day. However, as he went into more depth, it became obvious to me that ‘details’ were the issue. It was clear from his conversation that he had become obsessed with details, and he was putting almost all of his time, energy and focus on these – rather than keeping the big picture as his mental goal and focus.

    Interestingly, when I pointed this out to him, his face lit up, and he had an ‘a-ha’ moment.

    2. Identify the essential steps (but not the details)

    Once you have your big picture or end goal, the next thing is to ask yourself: “What are the must dos for now?” and “What are the ‘should have’ and ‘good to have tasks’ for the moment?”

    Ask yourself these questions to know if what you choose to do now will contribute to the big picture instead of drilling into details that may be likely to change – or won’t contribute much to the bigger and important picture. In other words, pick out the essential steps that you need to take, but don’t worry at this stage about filling in the details.

    Let’s say you work in sales and you often need to do presentations to clients. If you’re good at your job, you won’t be satisfied with making the same presentation to different clients, instead, you’ll choose to customize your presentations to be appropriate to clients’ needs.

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    Of course, customizing your presentations can be time-consuming, and with no guarantee of any payoff at the end. The trick in this case, is to always keep the big picture in your mind when customizing your presentations. Everything you do and say to clients should bring them closer and closer to buying your services or products. Keep this in mind when you customize your presentations, and you won’t be tempted to go off into a world filled with unnecessary fluff and details.

    Big-picture thinking will get you big results

    Don’t get caught up in the details. Put your initial focus and thoughts on determining the big picture. After that, work out the essential steps you need to take to reach your goal. Only after you’ve completed these tasks should you give your time and attention to focusing on necessary details.

    If you plan all your major projects this way, you’ll complete them sooner and more efficiently than you might have ever thought was possible.

    And one more thing, if you need any help focusing on important tasks, then I highly recommend you check out this helpful article: One Question That Will Help You Refocus and Achieve Greatness at Work

    Featured photo credit: Freepik via freepik.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Leon Ho

    Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    How to Prevent Decision Fatigue From Clouding Your Judgement

    How to Prevent Decision Fatigue From Clouding Your Judgement

    What is decision fatigue? Let me explain this with an example:

    When determining a court ruling, there are many factors that contribute to their final verdict. You probably assume that the judge’s decision is influenced solely by the nature of the crime committed or the particular laws that were broken. While this is completely valid, there is an even greater influential factor that dictates the judge’s decision: the time of day.

    In 2012, a research team from Columbia University[1] examined 1,112 court rulings set in place by a Parole Board Judge over a 10 month period. The judge would have to determine whether the individuals in question would be released from prison on parole, or a change in the parole terms.

    While the facts of the case often take precedence in decision making, the judges mental state had an alarming influence on their verdict.

    As the day goes on, the chance of a favorable ruling drops:

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      Image source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

      Does the time of day, or the judges level of hunger really contribute that greatly to their decision making? Yes, it does.

      The research went on to show that at the start of the day the likelihood of the judging giving out a favorable ruling was somewhere around 65%.

      But as the morning dragged on, the judge became fatigued and drained from making decision after decision. As more time went on, the odds of receiving a favorable ruling decreased steadily until it was whittled down to zero.

      However, right after their lunch break, the judge would return to the courtroom feeling refreshed and recharged. Energized by their second wind, their leniency skyrockets back up to a whopping 65%. And again, as the day drags on to its finish, the favorable rulings slowly diminish along with the judge’s spirits.

      This is no coincidence. According to the carefully recorded research, this was true for all 1,112 cases. The severity of the crime didn’t matter. Whether it was rape, murder, theft, or embezzlement, the criminal was more likely to get a favorable ruling either early in the morning, or after the judges lunch break.

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      Are You Suffering from Decision Fatigue Too?

      We all suffer from decision fatigue without even realizing it.

      Perhaps you aren’t a judge with the fate of an individual’s life at your disposal, but the daily decisions you make for yourself could hinder you if you’re not in the right head-space.

      Regardless of how energetic you feel (as I imagine it is somehow caffeine induced anyway), you will still experience decision fatigue. Just like every other muscle, your brain gets tired after periods of overuse, pumping out one decision after the next. It needs a chance to rest in order to function at a productive rate.

      The Detrimental Consequences of Decision Fatigue

      When you are in a position such as a Judge, you can’t afford to let your mental state dictate your decision making; but it still does. According to George Lowenstein, an American educator and economy expert, decision fatigue is to blame for poor decision making among members of high office. The disastrous level of failure among these individuals to control their impulses could be directly related to their day to day stresses at work and their private life.

      When you’re just too tired to think, you stop caring. And once you get careless, that’s when you need to worry. Decision fatigue can contribute to a number of issues such as impulse shopping (guilty), poor decision making at work, and poor decision making with after work relationships. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t dip your pen in the company ink.

      How to Make Decision Effectively

      Either alter the time of decision making to when your mind is the most fresh, or limit the number of decisions to be made. Try utilizing the following hacks for more effective decision making.

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      1. Make Your Most Important Decisions within the First 3 Hours

      You want to make decisions at your peak performance, so either first thing in the morning, or right after a break.

      Research has actually shown that you are the most productive for the first 3 hours[2] of your day. Utilize this time! Don’t waste it on trivial decisions such as what to wear, or mindlessly scrolling through social media.

      Instead, use this time to tweak your game plan. What do you want to accomplish? What can you improve? What steps do you need to take to reach these goals?

      2. Form Habits to Reduce Decision Making

      You don’t have to choose all the time.

      Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it doesn’t have to be an extravagant spread every morning. Make a habit out of eating a similar or quick breakfast, and cut that step of your morning out of the way. Can’t decide what to wear? Pick the first thing that catches your eye. We both know that after 20 minutes of changing outfits you’ll just go with the first thing anyway.

      Powerful individuals such as Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg don’t waste their precious time deciding what to wear. In fact, they have been known to limiting their outfits down to two options in order to reduce their daily decision making.

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      3. Take Frequent Breaks for a Clearer Mind

      You are at your peak of productivity after a break, so to reap the benefits, you need to take lots of breaks! I know, what a sacrifice. If judges make better decisions in the morning and after their lunch break, then so will you.

      The reason for this is because the belly is now full, and the hunger is gone. Roy Baumeister, Florida State University social psychologist[3] had found that low-glucose levels take a negative toll on decision making. By taking a break to replenish your glucose levels, you will be able to focus better and improve your decision making abilities.

      Even if you aren’t hungry, little breaks are still necessary to let your mind refresh, and come back being able to think more clearly.

      Structure your break times. Decide beforehand when you will take breaks, and eat energy sustaining snacks so that your energy level doesn’t drop too low. The time you “lose” during your breaks will be made up in the end, as your productivity will increase after each break.

      So instead of slogging through your day, letting your mind deteriorate and fall victim to the daily abuses of decision making, take a break, eat a snack. Let your mind refresh and reset, and jump-start your productivity throughout the day.

      More Tips About Decision Making

      Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

      Reference

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