Big Picture vs Detail Oriented Thinking


Big picture vs detail oriented thinking is usually portrayed as a dichotomy. It is one or the other, and even when the need for both is acknowledged, the two are still considered separate forces. Here is a section of an article that is one of the first google search results:

Typical of the Big Picture Thinker

  • You can quickly see patterns in complex problems.
  • You like to come up with new ideas and new projects.
  • You have a low tolerance for busywork, tedious errands, and filling out forms.
  • You are great at outlining what needs to be done, but filling in the details can feel exhausting.
  • You may have been described as right-brained.
  • When you have taken the Myers-Briggs assessment, you were an N.

Typical of the Details Thinker

  • You think about things in great detail and sometimes miss the big picture.
  • While you are certainly smart, others may joke that you lack common sense.
  • You would prefer to edit or tweak a plan than to come up with it from scratch.
  • Highlighting study notes doesn’t work for you, because you end up highlighting everything.
  • You may have a tendency to over-think things.
  • You have excellent attention to detail.
  • You may have been described as left-brained.
  • When you have taken the Myers-Briggs assessment, you were an S.

While this may be a good indicator of which type of thinking is more dominant, it doesn’t look at the two in combination. For me, big picture and detail thinking are very intertwined.

I’ve always considered myself a big picture thinker, and I even have the N on the Myers-Briggs test. In addition, I consider some of the worst arguments to be the ones where something is taken out of context. Generally I don’t try to bog myself down with details, but often the two types of thinking aren’t mutually exclusive; sometimes the application of big picture thinking requires an enormous attention to detail. Whether a large-scale plan succeeds often depends on the tiny details.

In chess, the big picture vs the details is analogous to strategy vs tactics. Strategy provides you with overall guidance: should I attack the kingside or the queenside, should I seek to trade a bishop for a knight? Tactics govern how such plans actually take place: if I attack the kingside this way, then my opponent will play this counter, then I will play this move, etc. I try to keep a balance of strategy and tactics, as having one without the other can lead to disaster.

I guess an analogy would be that to get somewhere, you need a map and a car. Having a map without the transportation is useless, and having a car but no idea how to get to your destination is futile. Though if you had to pick only one, I guess having the car is a better idea.

Big Picture Thinking Requires Details, and Vice Versa

The big picture vs detail oriented thinking comes up a lot in political/economic/social debates. Often it’s the knowledge of many related facts that leads to a more accurate big picture understanding. To take a not super-controversial topic, consider the funding and effectiveness of NASA. We know that it has declined significantly since landing on the moon. And we know that landing a human on Mars should be done soon, and we could argue that if only NASA had more funding, we could be much further in space exploration.

Of course, the previous is a pretty naive representation of the NASA situation. During the 1960s, we were at the height of the space race in the Cold War, and NASA was considered not only as an institution for scientific research, but also an institution for national security. Landing on the moon was inspirational not just as a feat of humanity, but also as a feat of us beating them. In addition, as many inventions come from military purpose, there are obvious military implications of having satellites in orbit around the earth, but there are much fewer in having any on Mars. And the economic investment would take much longer to return. You could keep piling on more relevant details to get a better picture.

The point is, to get a good high-level understanding of something requires extensive knowledge of the details surrounding it.

On the other hand, making sense of small details often relies on seeing the big picture. Every bit and fragment of the news makes more sense the more you understand current trends. Events that seem unrelated may very well be correlated, but the correlation may only be visible from bird’s eye view.

For example, LGBT rights and the abortion/women’s rights may seem unrelated, but there is a common denominator: religion. Resistance against LGBT rights and abortion are both connected to religious beliefs in the same way, and even the arguments for resisting either movement come almost solely from religious arguments. This is why on this blog I discuss religion a lot but rarely LGBT rights or abortion—dealing with the root cause is more imperative than dealing with the symptoms.

In all, both big picture and detail oriented thinking are important, and one needs both of them to have a deeper understanding. Without the big picture or the details, one has a limited grasp of the situation.

Spontaneous Decision Making


This post is about my own decision-making habits. In particular, I don’t plan ahead details ahead of time, as I abhor fixed schedules or fixed paths. Perhaps an interesting case is from a 2011 post:

For example, last semester, to get to one of my classes from my dorm I had two main paths, one going over the Thurston Bridge and the other over a smaller bridge that went by a waterfall. For the first couple weeks I took the Thurston Bridge path exclusively, as I thought it was shorter than the waterfall path. But then one day I went the other path and timed it, with about the same time, maybe a minute slower (out of a total of 15 minutes). So I started taking the waterfall path exclusively. But eventually that got boring too, so I started alternating every time. You might think that’s how it ended.

But a consistent change like that is still… consistent. Still the same. It was still repetitive, and still very predictable. Perhaps the mathematical side of me started running pattern-search algorithms or something. Eventually, I ended up on a random schedule, not repeating the same pattern in any given span of 3 or 4 days.

This example involved physical paths, but it is true for figurative paths as well. I can’t stand any repetitive task for a long time, including for things that I might like.

Another set of examples comes from video games. I tend to play extremely flexible classes/builds that have multiple purposes, and I try to have multiple characters or styles to be able to adapt quickly and to know what other people are thinking:

  • World of Warcraft: 8 (out of 11) classes at level 85+; raided as tank, dps, and heal.
  • Diablo 3: all 5 classes at level 60.
  • Path of Exile: all 6 classes at level 60+.
  • DotA: every hero played (up to a certain version).
  • Starcraft 2: all 3 races to level 30.

In WoW, the game I have definitely spent the most time on, my two main characters when I raided were a Priest (disc/shadow) and Paladin (prot/holy), having all 3 roles covered. Even within one specialization, I switched out strategies all the time: one day I would stack haste, the next day I would stack crit, and so on. Even so, I was usually very indecisive about what to do until the last moment.

My blogging follows a similar pattern. I find it hard to focus on one topic to write about in consecutive posts, and I generally cover whatever topic comes to mind. Yes, I set a schedule of one post per week. However, I usually don’t come up with a topic until the last day. The topic for this post did not arise until yesterday, from the suggestion of a friend (whom we were visiting also as a result of a spontaneous decision).

Being too spontaneous, however, also didn’t work well. In 2011 I decided to blog spontaneously (see the first link). Largely due to indecision, I ended up writing only 33 posts the entire year, 20 of which were written in the first two months. By contrast, in the December of 2010, I wrote 38 posts. The current system of sticking with a posting schedule but not a topic schedule is working much better, as every once in a while it forces me to make a decision and choose some topic to write about. This removes indecision from the equation.

(Edit: Due to an inordinate amount of spam on this page, the the comments are disabled.)