How sweating the details can work against you

We tend to believe that the more we know, the more we will understand. We want more facts, more details, more numbers, more of whatever that would make us smarter. But what really makes us smarter is thinking and thinking is hard. Seeking data is easier than thinking, so we tend to go that way.

I used to be a big supporter of the idea that the more information I have at hand, the better I will understand how things come together. And so I dig in, get the data and figure out how that number became what it became. At this point I have already the first issue.

1. You think you understand a number because you know how it is calculated

The more you know about the details behind a result, the more you will think it makes sense. Your understanding of  how it comes together makes you feel it’s right. And because you know what a number is made of, you also stop thinking. You stop thinking about what it SHOULD BE, which is really what makes a result right or wrong. This is why being too accurate can also work against you. Somehow saying 21.573 sounds more right than 20k.

2. You lose focus and start discussing the wrong things

Imagine this: your goal is to get to a weight of 70 kg. You’re starting at 100 and you went down to 95 last month and this month you should have been at 90. Instead, you’re at 93. If I have all your exercise schedule and your calorie intake, I make some calculations and then show how the pizza party last weekend and the lack of any exercise is what got you to 93 instead of 90.

Then it’s clear for everyone and we all agree that these are the reasons for you not being at 90. So what? Well then you know that you should exercise more and eat less pizza. When we review your result, we discuss how you had to go to this pizza party because it was your friend’s birthday and how the tough schedule at work didn’t allow you to do any exercise.  

Was that a discussion that would bring us forward? Let me put it differently: did you not know this from before? When you have been working for some time on losing weight, would you not know that the pizza party and no exercise will get you off track? Of course you knew that. So, we just had a discussion where we both agreed the 93 makes sense and moreover, you gave further information about why this happened. And I feel good about myself that I was right and you feel good about yourself for contributing to that understanding. In the end, a complete waste of time. Which brings me to the next point about the danger of being too much into the details.

3. You start answering your own questions and stop seeking insight

Back to the pizza story: what are the questions I should have asked you? Assuming I had no details about your calorie intake and exercise schedule:

Me: “Why 93 instead of 90?”

You: “Well, I had more calories and less exercise because it was my friend’s birthday and I worked a lot”

Me: “Didn’t you see this coming? What was your plan for damage control?

You: “I didn’t really have one, this is an area I need to improve on.”

Me: “What will you do to secure the 80 coming through next month?”

And we would’ve concluded that we will work on a rescue plan for getting back on track and map out what it takes to get to the 80 next month.

You see the difference? I thought I knew why the result was 93. But actually I didn’t. The 93 is a not a result of having more calories and less exercise, it is the result of not having a damage control plan and thinking ahead. And that is the discussion you should have and the insight you should seek.

Working towards less work

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