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The steps to shake yourself out of ‘small-picture’ thinking

Rest assured, there is a forest among all those confounding trees.

The steps to shake yourself out of ‘small-picture’ thinking
[Source illustration: Nadezda_Grapes/iStock]
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Do you look up from your desk some days and ask yourself, How did another day pass and priorities are still unaddressed?

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Leaders broadly recognize the importance of being strategic but struggle to find the time. So, it’s unsurprising that many come to coaching aiming to think and act more strategically. They know they’re not operating at the right altitude and feel frustrated while stuck in the weeds. A few examples from my network include Colin, a vice president at a tech firm whose professional scope had dramatically increased but who faced difficulty extracting himself from the details. Or Rebecca, a communications executive who knew she needed to be more strategic but was stuck in a reactive loop of endless activity.

Both Colin and Rebecca tried various tactics to make progress, such as ruthless prioritizing, canceling nonessential meetings, and time-blocking.

Their efforts, which are important aspects of maintaining a more strategic focus, helped for a while. But as time wore on, they found themselves backsliding into old habits.

Why? Because extracting yourself from the small details requires more than understanding how to broaden your view and setting aside time to think. These are important aspects of being more strategic, but what you truly need to maintain a shift to being more strategic is greater self-awareness and an adjustment in your thinking.

If you too find yourself stuck in the weeds despite your best efforts, here’s how to escape, once and for all.

Pause when you’re being reactive

Excessive stress impairs our higher-order thinking and executive functioning. Too much stress and we find ourselves distracted, disorganized, and reactive.

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In this state of mind, it’s natural to feel like the thing to do is hunker down and start knocking items off your endless to-do list. Getting tactical and narrowing in on simpler tasks is a common effect of stress, and we can easily confuse activity with effectiveness. In the moment, checking items off our to-do list is so satisfying, but it’s ultimately empty because the list never gets shorter. Getting things done is far different from getting the right things done.

When you feel anxious about everything on your plate and feel like you need to buckle down and start ticking items off your list, pause. Recognize that’s just stress talking.

Counter your reactive urge to hunker down and instead use importance-ranking resources (like Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important matrix) to identify which of your activities you should focus on and which you should ignore. By using this tool, you will handle truly urgent issues and work toward your more strategic longer-term goals at the same time.

Consider your real job description

Taking on more scope or advancing to a new level requires a significant change in your beliefs around how you add value, how you allocate your time, and the skill sets you need to leverage. Especially in rapidly growing companies, you must adapt and level up at high speeds as you quickly take on more and more responsibility.

However, these important shifts are rarely laid out clearly. And the tricky thing is that often what got you promoted is not what will make you successful in your new role. For example, Colin advanced quickly at his company based on his superior analytical and problem solving capabilities. But in his expanded role, he needed to lift up from the data and adopt a more strategic focus. In other words, the very skill that got him promoted—his ability to go really deep into the details—was exactly the habit that he now needed to let go.

Old habits die hard, but Colin was able to make a sustainable shift to being more strategic when he realized that his over-involvement in the small details was disempowering his team and holding them all back from having a bigger impact. What are the costs you’re incurring to yourself and others by not letting go and staying too deep in the details?

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Keep yourself operating at the right altitude by asking yourself these three questions daily. What’s the most important thing my key stakeholders need me to accomplish in this role? What are the things that only I can do? And, if I do nothing else on this priority today, I will do this one task.

Identify fears and false assumptions

Fears can hold us back at work, including pulling out of the weeds. For example, Rebecca worried that if she was asked a question by senior leadership and didn’t know the answer, she might seem incompetent. And despite having a strong team to lean on, she also worried that if she didn’t do certain things, no one else would.

Fears like these are common obstacles that keep people stuck in the weeds. What’s important to recognize about fears is that they are based on assumptions—and these assumptions are often faulty.

Upon reflection, Rebecca realized that she was operating with the assumption that she could and should know all the answers—and the complete impossibility of that. Her second assumption was less immediately falsifiable, so we designed an experiment to test it. Rebecca stepped back in a couple of key areas, and much to her pleasant surprise, her team members filled the void.

Illuminating and testing unexamined assumptions released Rebecca from her fear-driven habit of trying to stay on top of every detail, and allowed her to focus at a higher level.

What underlying factors keep you stuck in the weeds? Identify what you’re worried about and what you’re assuming. By identifying your fears and the assumptions they’re based on, you can loosen their grip.

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If you want to pull out of the weeds and focus on the bigger picture, put away your long to-do list for a little while; consider what’s truly important, and not just urgent. Update how you think about your role and how you create value. And uncover and pressure-test the assumptions that are getting in your way.

By lifting up from the details, you will regain your sanity, see around corners in your way, and allow others around you to flourish, as well.


Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, a leadership development firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.