It’s hard to make changes. Growth is hard. Stress is uncomfortable. However, there are ways to be more resilient when adversity rears its head or when your resolve is being tested. The first step is asking what do you notice when challenges or stress arise? You might first notice how you feel physically followed by the onslaught of thoughts and feelings that occur in response to adversity. What is an effective way to decrease stress, improve decision-making, and more effectively work toward our goals? It turns out it’s all about changing our perspective: widening the aperture with big-picture thinking.
Big picture thinking can be used for quick decisions that helps us grow towards the type of person we want to be with our habits and it can also be used to manage stressful situations. When there’s a challenge at hand, our mind wanders and starts trying to “fix” the uncertainty we feel. Humans don’t like uncertainty. Trying to understand why something happened or how we might fix it can lead to excessive rumination. We get stuck in thought loops that lead to anxiety, depression (or depressive states), and a laundry list of associated health problems. What are some practices to help broaden our perspective and extract us from the quagmire of thoughts?
Some personal yet relatable examples include pregnancy, COVID-19, career changes, relationships, waiting to get an answer for something life-changing, reducing alcohol intake, bike racing, and recovering from injury.
First, I’ll discuss when and why big-picture thinking can help us make better decisions, reduce anxiety, and enhance feelings of meaning and purpose. Next, I’ll give some big-picture thinking examples to help you start practicing it in your own life.
Cue in big-picture thinking.
First, let’s define big-picture thinking. Big-picture thinking is part of Construal Level Theory. Thinking big picture is what psychologists call “high-level construal.” High-level construal is characterized by abstract thinking where the individual sees a situation from the outside in. The metaphor of seeing the forest from the trees is an example of high-level construal. When we get stressed, we tend to lose perspective and get hyper-focused on a narrow view (aka low-level construal). In fact, this also happens with our visual field. According to neurobiologist Andrew Huberman, our field of vision actually narrows, our pupils dilate, and our eyes slightly turn in toward our nose. This visual change creates a cascade of sympathetic nervous system reactions. Our narrowing perspective is wired in both our physiology and psychology. Stress and overwhelm mire us in the details, make us very self-focused, and can make it difficult to pull ourselves out of the intensity of the moment. A big-picture view helps us be more constructive and objective about our situation and reduces the emotional charge and rumination that often accompanies stress and overwhelm.
For example, when you’re sick, injured or even stuck in traffic, it can feel like you’re going to be in that situation forever. You start focusing on that feeling of impatience and discomfort, and it intensifies further. So what do you do?
What is the key component of big-picture thinking? It starts with first noticing our thoughts and then identifying their tone. Essentially, big-picture thinking comes down to our inner voice and self-talk. Our self-talk helps us gain perspective the help us with future planning, goals, and negative emotions.
Simply put, big-picture thinking helps us regulate our self-talk. Kross continues, “we and others discovered that zooming out in this way also reined in peoples’ flight or fight cardiovascular response to stress, dampened emotional activity in the brain, and led people to experience less hostility and aggression when they were provoked.”
“We can think of the mind as a lens and our inner voice as a button that zooms it either in or out.”Ethan Kross
How do we improve big-picture thinking?
Essentially, the way to get better at big-picture thinking and ultimately our self-regulation is about psychological distancing. Noticing what we are saying to ourselves and then using some techniques to create space gives us clarity.
What is psychological distancing?
Psychological distancing is a practice where you remove yourself from a direct experience. Giesbrecht, Müller, & Miller note that it’s the ability to “step back and without an immediate response, survey the environment, and reflect on the course of action instead of being dominated by immediate simulation.” Being too zoomed in during a challenging decision or period in life forces us to focus more on our negativity bias and magnifies our adversity. Stress, anger, and sadness create an environment more rumination that gets us stuck in an endless loop of what’s happening. Psychological distancing is a practice and being able to think big picture helps uncloud our judgment.
What are some examples of how to think big picture?
Trope, Liberman, and Wakslak (2007) describe four types of psychological distancing:…
- Temporal distancing (distance in time)
- Social distancing (ourselves from other people)
- Spatial distancing (physical distance between two events)
- Hypothetical distancing (how likely an event will happen; optimism)
More on how you can practice these big-picture thinking exercises in a minute.
Big Picture Example for Changing Habits and Pursuing Goals
Difficulty thinking big picture also arises when we are considering habits. For example, if you’re trying to train for a race, eat more healthily, or spend less time on your phone, it can be difficult to make in-the-moment decisions where doing the more pleasurable thing is more rewarding. The big picture might mean making the less pleasurable decision in the short-term in order to create a new habit that fulfills a long-term goal. If you think about what your future might look like if you continue making choices that are incongruent with your goals versus what your future might look like if you make productive choices, it can help you stay on track.
- How would future me think about this decision later today, in 1 week, in 1 year? Say you eat the box of cookies or drink a bottle of wine when you’re trying to change that habit. Say you skip your run this morning. How would future you feel about that decision? (temporal)
- You’re putting in the work for some creative endeavor. How likely do you believe it is that you’ll be successful in that endeavor when thinking of the future? (hypothetical)
Big Picture Thinking Example in Sport
We’ll pick a bike race as an easy example but you can insert a similar example from your own life. Say you are doing a race you spent a lot of time training for. It’s not going well. Personally, I do two things. First, if I’m feeling shameful about what my result might be or how I’m performing, I remind myself that nobody cares. I zoom out and picture the earth from space how insignificant I am as one tiny dot, upset that my legs don’t feel good (spatial). Second, I remind myself that the suffering will end. 100 mile mountain bike races are long. I remind myself that in a few hours or perhaps many hours, I’ll be sitting in a chair with my friends. The pain will end, the impatience will end, and it’ll almost be like this one moment didn’t even happen (temporal).
Big Picture Thinking Example for Hard Times
Sickness, injury, grief, unwanted life changes. This is part of the human experience. Let me preface this by saying that I’m not suggesting that we should ignore the feelings that come with them, nor am I saying we should try to distract ourselves from them. It’s about creating some distance from the feelings like seeing clouds in a sky.
I’ll use my recent bout with COVID-19 that is still very fresh in my mind. It seemed to go on forever. In fact, I’m still dealing with fatigue. My entire family got it all at once including my 6-month old baby and 2-year-old. It was really hard and I felt pretty unhappy. It seemed like it would never end. I used temporal distancing and reminded myself that in a year from, now this experience would seem a lot less intense and I just had to be patient and sit in it.
While time doesn’t heal all wounds, it does give us space to process it.
Big picture thinking example in a disagreement.
This is where the social distancing relevant. In non-violent communication, the point of a disagreement isn’t to be right or to win an argument. It’s about trying to have a deeper understanding of the other person and using conflict as a way of building on your relationship. Distancing is required because without it, yo may be thinking you have to satisfy the emotional desire to be right. Thinking big picture is about adding depth, acceptance and understanding to a relationship. Social distancing creates empathy.
Big picture thinking example for time management
We all have a LOT on our plates right now. Between work tasks, home tasks (darn that pile of laundry, messy garage, and overflowing recycling), making time for ourselves, family life, and extra-curricular commitments, we are overwhelmed most of the time. It can be challenging to know where to prioritize your time when everything seems important.
Personally, I prioritize tasks using big picture thinking by asking myself what needs to be done consistently. My podcast, the action required to eat heathily, exercise, and taking care of my children tend to sift to the top of this list. Next, I look at what has a deadline. Is the deadline self-imposed or is it something like paying a bill?
When You Shouldn’t Use Big Picture Thinking
Celebrating accomplishments is a time you might not want to think big picture. We often sweep our accomplishments under the rug or downplay thim. Thinking big picture could potentially exacerbate this problem. Or, maybe thinking big picture in the success realm helps you build momentum. Either way, don’t minimize your wins!
A note on self-talk: when addressing your self-talk around distancing, use “you” or your own name instead of “I.” When you are talking to yourself using “I” (I’m trying my best vs. you’re trying your best or Jane is trying her best), I can make it hard to distance yourself. When it comes to self-talk, be like Elmo!
If you’re interested in how you can use self-talk to improve performance, read or listen here.
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