Have People Lost the Ability to Think Big Picture?

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Think BIG!

So often in life, I see people  (myself included) making decisions that benefit them-short term but damage them long-term. It’s as if a majority of society has lost the ability to think big picture. This summer I’ll turn 48, which means 50 is just around the corner.  There’s something about turning 50 that makes one evaluate life, and as such, I’ve spent the last few months really working on looking at every decision from a big picture standpoint.   I want to live the second half of my life much more intentionally than I’ve lived the first, and I believe a good way to do that is to look at decisions from a big picture standpoint. What does it mean to think big picture? Here are some examples that have happened to me lately that have caused me to start analyzing the human mind and its seeming inability to think big picture.

Recommended Reading: Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence

Big Picture Thinking

Scenario #1

I bring my son to DQ to get him a cone. I love ice cream. I’ve really been a champ lately at keeping sugar consumption to a minimum as I work on some health goals. The thought occurs to me that I deserve a treat for all of my discipline and hard work. I think, “I’ll get myself a cone too. I deserve a treat”. This sounds like a nice idea, from a small-picture point of view. But I stop and begin to analyze further.

  • How am I going to feel when I wake up the next morning with that extra 500+ calories on my hips and a blood sugar that spent the evening going crazy?
  • How am I going to feel when I know that I’ve just delayed my weight loss and fitness goals by another day?
  • How am I going to feel when I write down that extra 3 bucks on the spend-tracking spreadsheet, knowing I could’ve put it toward debt?

It may seem like I’m over-thinking a simple issue, but I’ve learned on this journey to debt free that it’s often a whole lot of “simple issues” that add up to a BIG mess, whether in regards to debt, to weight or to life in general. It’s often a whole lot of small picture decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time that turned out to lead to a bad big picture situation. For the record, I decided against getting myself a cone, and I felt a WHOLE lot better the next morning, knowing that I saved myself 3 bucks and 500 calories.

Scenario #2

One of my goals this year has been to get back into the stellar shape I was in when we bought this place nearly three years ago. The stress from the move and some other stressful factors led to me packing on 35 pounds in the first two years at the farm. The weight is slowly coming off, and with it, a desire to be stronger, healthier.  As such, I’ve made it a goal to add some extra workouts into my days. The workouts really aren’t that draining on the schedule. Some squats, some pushups, some Pilates, etc.

Like you, my schedule is swamped, however. Homeschooling four kids, caring for a home and a hobby farm and running a freelance business take up a good 17-18 hours a day. When night time comes, honestly, I just want to plop myself in front of the TV and zone out. I deserve a break. Each night, as I plop myself in front of the idiot box, I’m faced with a choice: I can watch the tube on the couch, or spend some time on the floor, getting some squats, pushups, etc., in as I half zone out in front of the TV. Honestly, sitting on the couch sounds better, but what do I really deserve? As I go back to thinking big picture about this decision, I start the analysis process once again:

  • How will I feel in the morning if I lay on the couch vs. if I use some of that time to do some strength training?
  • How will I feel at the beach next month knowing that my choosing the couch option every day had a direct impact on the not-so-firm view of me in a bathing suit?
  • How will my decision to lay on the couch instead of spending 20 minutes doing some strength training affect my ability to work, to play and to improve the quality of my life?

So, I get up, and I do the exercises, knowing that, more than deserving to rest, I owe it to myself and I deserve to have a stronger, healthier body that will help improve the quality of my life and benefit me for years to come, as opposed to just letting my body fall into a worse state of disarray and bad health.

Scenario #3

There’s work – and plenty of it – to be done around the house. Things need cleaning. I have tutorials and articles that I could read to improve my work life, my personal life or my spiritual life. Yet, the couch is once again calling my name. It’s only 1p.m., but I’ve been up since 5 and going strong for 8 hours. A nap sounds real good about now.

But how am I going to feel the next day when the to-do list is even bigger, because I chose laziness over getting things done? What will my stress level be like then? Big picture, if I can cross a few more things off of the list, it’ll make tomorrow a better day. So I choose to get a few more things done before I take that nap. And it feels good, knowing I pushed myself that extra mile.

Scenario #4

Most women (especially moms) I know put themselves last on the list when it comes to caring for themselves, and I’m sure many men do the same. I often think about how nice it would be to have lovely manicured nails, a new haircut, a facial or a good, long soak in the tub. But life is busy and there are things to do. The “small picture” me sees spending time on doing things for myself as a waste of time that could be better used to accomplish the many “to-do’s” I have on my list.

Then I turn to big-picture thinking once again as I ponder my decision.

  • How much better of a mom/wife/sister/daughter/friend/worker will I be if I take some time each day/week to nurture and care for myself?
  • How much will my stress level decrease and my productivity increase if I treat myself as a person of value?
  • How much will I be teaching my kids about valuing themselves if I choose to value myself instead of put myself last?
  • How much better will people treat me if I set the example for them and treat myself well?

So I choose to schedule some time in each week to pamper, nurture and care for myself. And the benefits definitely outweigh the time it took to do those things.

In today’s “have it now” society, I think that on many levels we’ve lost the ability to think big picture, in essence training ourselves to get used to being happy with instant results and to see delayed benefits as a bad thing.  This backwards thinking could well be the undoing of our society in many ways. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and America saw many years of war and destruction as the founders of this country spent each day learning how to become “the land of the free”.  Good things may come with a short amount of effort, but truly great things can come only with time – time and the ability to think big picture and be patient enough to wait for the small daily efforts to add up to great success.

38 comments

  1. Such a wonderful and thought provoking post! There are so many times each day where we all encounter one of these four scenarios. And because of how stressed/tired we are we choose the easiest option, which is usually the worst one in the long run. For me, keeping pictures and daily reminders in my planner really helps me focus on what I’m truly trying to work on not only for next week but for the years ahead.

    • Laurie says:

      I love the idea of keeping pics and daily reminders handy, Amanda!! What a great way to keep your goals at the forefront of your mind!

  2. Mr. SSC says:

    I see some of this in my life and agree that it can be hard sometimes to think big and not just be in the immediate short term gain. It reminds me of an Onion article I keep at my desk titled, “Study finds working at work leads to increased productivity!” It’s a reminder that keeps me active and productive more often than not. Anyone else see the irony here? 🙂

    I also have a retirement countdown clock. I keep it next to the coffee pot and see it daily. It keeps the early retirement picture at the forefront of my thoughts and keeps things focused that way.

    I should photoshop a picture of me with another 30 lbs added and put it on my login screen of my ipad and tape it to the remote. I bet that would motivate me to do short workouts each night.

    Great post!

    • Laurie says:

      LOL, that sounds like the perfect motivation, Mr. SSC! 🙂 Seriously though, I get it! It’s so easy, especially in today’s busy world, to make those easier, seemingly better small picture choices, but thinking big will do us all wonders in the long term.

  3. We make so many choices out of convenience these days, and don’t think of the long term affect. It was that way with our money for many years, not until we began tracking a budget and net worth did we truly understand the “big picture” financially. This way of thinking trickled over into other areas of our lives too. Once you tackle one area, its good behaviors follow in others.

    • Laurie says:

      That really seems to be the case, doesn’t it, Brian. And then you reap the benefits of many areas of improvement that weren’t what you set out for in the first place!

  4. This is one of my favorites of your posts, Laurie. It gave me a lot to think about!

    I think this way about parenting, too. There are so many times that I wonder what any given decision will mean in the longer-term, especially when I make “exceptions” for my daughter. (“Yes, you can watch one extra show today.”)

    • Laurie says:

      Ugh, I hear you! One of the very toughest things I do as a parent is to determine when saying “no” as opposed to “yes” will benefit my children in the long-term – and vice versa. Too many times I say “no” when it really wouldn’t hurt to say “yes”. Parenting is a big job!

  5. LOVE this, Laurie! It’s very true that so many people get caught only thinking short-term, rather than looking at both. I think it’s getting worse because we can instantly gratify so many of our wants/needs without thinking about whether or not we should. I particularly love the last one because you hit the nail on the head, my friend. Women (and men too) need to carve out some me time in their day. It’s not easy because as you said there is so much to do, but I know taking some time for me helps me be a better Mom, wife, boss and advisor to my clients.

  6. I definitely think we live in an instant gratification, live for the moment type of society. I think if we really, really, really want something then making some short term sacrifices is worth it.

  7. You are so right that all those ‘small picture decisions’ tend to lend themselves to big picture mistakes. It’s really about moving forward and not backward. When you think about the big picture you are keeping your eyes toward the big not the small. Great post Laurie!

    • Laurie says:

      Yes! That is how we need to think of things: will this decision help me move forward or backward? Great comment, Maureen!

  8. I’m so glad you added self-care at the end! Scenarios #1-3 are about toughing it out and denying yourself for the longer term goal, but Scenario #4 is about giving to yourself – also for the longer term goal. Kind of cool how both types of long-term wisdom are needed.

    • Laurie says:

      Yes, I’ve really learned the last few months about the importance of self care. We just have to make the time for it if we’re going to have long-term success. Thanks, Prudence!

  9. Laura Harris says:

    I love that last scenario most of all. It’s counter-intuitive for me to put myself first when I spend all day caring for my family. Although, I will say I catch an afternoon nap when the occasion allows. 🙂 Great thoughts, Laurie.

    • Laurie says:

      So true, Laura – it does seem that us moms have a hard time comprehending “me time”. Here’s to many more lovely, relaxing naps. 🙂

  10. Great post Laurie!!! I have a number of these inner dialogues with myself over a lot of the same issues, and it’s the dialogues that help keep us on track. I used to never have the dialogue and I just reacted and that led to not only money issues but my weight issues as well. I need to force myself to get up early to work out every morning and every morning when the alarm goes off and it’s still dark I have the dialogue with myself and force myself out of bed. Getting out of bed doesn’t always win the inner dialogue, but at least I have it rather than mindlessly hitting snooze. 🙂

    • Laurie says:

      I hear you about just reacting. That was me for SO many years! Even though the dialogue doesn’t always work, it’s nice to be having it, isn’t it? 🙂

  11. I LOVE THIS POST! I do find myself thinking small picture sometimes. For instance, I was shopping with a friend a few months ago and when the jacket I tried on didn’t fit instead of saying “well I better workout some more to get in better shape” I said “how depressing it doesn’t fit. Let’s go get a snack”. That reaction made no sense because 1. a snack will make it fit even worse 2. I don’t NEED a snack 3. I was shopping in the first place, haha. Great article Laurie!

    • Laurie says:

      LOL, I can SO relate, Kayla!! It’s like, from the outside looking in, the thought process is baffling, but from the inside, it makes perfect sense. 🙂 Oh well, we live and we learn, right?

  12. It’s so easy to get focused on the little stuff that’s right in front of you.

    By the way, peanut buster parfait for the win. You would have NEVER regretted that decision…..

    • Laurie says:

      Tell me!!!! That’s my absolute favorite. Did you see the new mini PBP? What a shame! Something that delish should never be made in a “mini” size. 🙂

  13. I love that ice cream cone deliberation you went through–I do the exact same thing (usually with food treats) alllllll the time. And I usually come to the same conclusion: it’s not worth the cost or the calories. I completely agree with you too that being in good financial (or physical) shape is often about the accumulation of all those seemingly small decisions. It all adds up!

    • Laurie says:

      It does seem like the accumulation of small decisions! When I look back on our debt accumulation, for instance, it wasn’t a handful of big decisions that led to our debt, it was countless small credit card purchase over a several year period.

  14. Laurie, I always remind myself to think big because this is just a was of encouraging myself to be the best that I can be and meet deadlines and give quality work despite having busy schedule and load of work. I admit that I kind lose the big picture sometimes, but I think it normally happens. What I do is go back to the big picture again.

    • Laurie says:

      Exactly, Jayson! That is what we have to do. Everyone loses sight of the big pic and gets caught up in the moment, but the important part is that we slow down and analyze our decisions, and go from there. Sounds like you’re doing that well. 🙂

  15. Getting out of that short-term mindset is so challenging! I’m terribly guilty of it myself, but I find when I focus more on other people, which all your 4 scenarios above can be related to, it helps me bring things back to the ‘big picture’. We just need to keep asking those sort of questions you posed above Laurie, frequent reminders are absolutely critical for me!

    • Laurie says:

      Excellent point, Jason!!! It’s often times when we are self-focused that we lose sight of the big picture. Great comment!

  16. Tony @ Inequality Today says:

    While I agree that keeping the big picture in mind at all times is essential, I also think it’s equally important to pay attention to the small things. A lot of times I find that small things are indicative of something bigger. For example in terms of the big picture someone might seem like a great person, but certain small things will make me feel uncomfortable about them. These small things tend to be a sign of bigger problems.

    • Laurie says:

      Great comment, Tony. It’s definitely important to pay attention to the smaller details as well, but many times, people get overly focused on instant decisions and don’t consider what that decision will cost in the long run.

  17. catherine says:

    YES. I am, and always have been a ”big picture” kind of person but my husband is very much not. He’s very task oriented and, in my opinion, has a hard time seeing beyond what it is he’s immediately focused on.

    • Laurie says:

      I can identify, Catherine! It’s hard to learn to think big picture, but once one learns to start living that way, small pic thinking can be very frustrating. 🙂

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