Can't see the forest for the trees? Don't forget the bigger picture.

Updated: Oct 1, 2019

I am a detail and structure junkie. If you can track it, plan it or analyse it, I'm in. It's one of the reasons that I'm fascinated by the art and science of body recomposition and performance. Even before I'd ever contemplated a fitness competition, I concentrated on all the intricate details of each training session, each meal, the metrics of my body composition and daily snippets of subjective data.  Like most things, there's pros and cons to this pattern of Type A, analytical thinking.  On the one hand, a consistent structure leads you to results that don't happen in a day. It's your blue print for how to accomplish big things. It enabled me to compete across multiple seasons, refine my physique and take home a National title. It's also the same skill set that equipped me to rebuild the foundations of my health after a phase of competitions. It's the all-in approach that I apply to my clients to optimise their health, nudge their body composition changes in the desired direction and amplify performance. On the other hand, too much structure all of the time can back fire. Sure, a carefully sequenced plan is an asset in a contest prep, but it can also become a liability if you can't shut your analytical mind off. And this has lingering effects that are easily underrated. If you're constantly on, you put all sorts of demands on your body that just aren't supposed to be maintained 24/7. The systems of the body are designed to maintain 'homeostasis' and find a happy medium. If you're alert and amped all the time, this cues your body to adapt to that state. The thing is, the body isn't meant to function like that all of the time. There needs to be some balance. If there's not, something's likely to crash.


Just because structure and discipline are useful traits, more isn't better. There's a tipping point. It's not useful to plan your entire life and opt out of any idle time. If you're an analytical person, you might need to deliberately find ways to take the pressure off and factor time for rest and play into your daily schedule. It's easier said than done, and I still struggle to do this. But I keep at it. Humans can't function optimally if they eliminate unplanned time - even machines have a stand by mode. 'Off time' isn't 'unproductive' time. It's regenerative time.


Sometimes, if a person becomes too obsessed about the little things, it's said that they 'can't see the forest for the trees'. Ie, they are so absorbed in the details of a problem that they fail to look at the full scenario. I can put my hand up and admit to this one. I didn't spot some of the issues in my health because I'd focused so intently on tracking the little details. For example, I'd meticulously plan and track my macros and calories, my lifts in training, the number on the scales and my skin fold data. But I didn't allocate that same degree of attention to problem solving my fatigue, my disrupted sleep, my anxieties around food, or the elephant in the room - my lack of a period. I think that I probably chose not to see certain things that didn't quite 'fit' into my desired set of circumstances. We don't see the things that we'd prefer not to see, right?  It's easy to call others out on the things they might be ignoring. It's a lot more difficult to hear the voice of reason if it's in your head, muffled by the louder voices of self-critique, ambition and impatience. This is one of the roles of a coach - to help you navigate the bigger picture, make sense of things and choose an intelligent path at the times that it's most difficult to see it. You might be really smart, but irrationality accompanies ambition in even the most experienced, educated person. There's four principles that I keep in my mind if I'm tracking, planning, analysing and adjusting, whether it's for me or for a client. 

1. Use your data as a tool, not the rule. I still collect just as much data (if not more, actually) than ever, but it guides my actions, rather than dictating things. It's there to help me connect the pieces, process my body's cues in real time and clear it out of my head. The data is also useful to trouble shoot my strategies. I can see whether something's working or if it needs to be adjusted.

2.  What's the broader situation here? After collecting all of the data, it's time to step back and assess the bigger picture. 3.  Listen to your instinct and resist the temptation to automatically obey 'the plan and only the plan'. Often, the most valuable step you can take is to trust your instinct. It's impossible to pre-plan each little detail because things unfold in many different ways. Your plan sets your baseline, and your instinct should fine tune it. It takes time to develop the skills to properly read your body. If you can tap into your instinct, it can nudge you in directions that you didn't necessarily anticipate, but it's a better choice in the current circumstances. I can tell if I've put structure ahead of instinct - for me, I'll become so reliant on my plan that I feel anxious just thinking about deviating from it. Can you step out of your head, keep the 'I'm not on track' anxieties at bay and ask yourself, 'what do I think my body needs based on the place it's in at the moment?' If you pay attention, you'll start to notice the signs and patterns. 4.  Can you assess your current state without becoming emotionally entangled in it? This is a tricky one. It's incredibly difficult to put your emotions to one side so that you can assess the bigger picture. For example, do you really need to cut calories, or are you just tempted to do that because you're freaked out that your fat loss might stall if you don't? Are you eating enough for optimal health? Are you letting an arbitrary time frame distract you from making smarter choices that will support lasting results?