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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

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    Leon Ho

    Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

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