Zooming Out When Stressed. 4 Short Questions That'll Help You See The Big Picture
If you’re reading these words, it means you were blessed with the gift of perspective. Without that, big-picture thinking would be impossible.
Perspective is helpful because it allows you to consider other people’s beliefs and views – a blessing despite the continued efforts of today's media and decision-makers to polarise us. But it also helps you walk around your own experiences. Indeed, by zooming in or out, you can look at them from different vantage points.
Zooming in makes you narrow your focus. As if staring down a microscope, you focus on more minor details with greater clarity. This happens, for example, when you’re looking at your to-do list or savouring the gooey taste of that delicious Belgian chocolate in your mouth.
When zooming out, you do the opposite. You look at events using a grander scale and across a longer timeline. While that makes them a little fuzzier and more abstract, it also allows you to think more strategically. Like the camera on your phone, you increase your perspective and shift your focus from micro to macro.
Zooming out – or distance thinking as some call it – helps you scan beyond your horizon during times of great stress. It’s an essential life skill, hence why the rest of this article is dedicated to it.
Big-picture thinking vs detail thinking
Although most of us easily toggle between zooming in and out depending on the situation, we tend to prefer one or the other. That makes us either big-picture thinkers or detail thinkers.
In organisational leadership, someone who thinks big picture is a macro-motivated person. Macro thinking is essential in business and entrepreneurship because it allows you to see opportunities and think strategically. You can usually spot a big-picture thinker from their language in meetings. They'll use phrases like: "Give me the gist of it" or "Just a few bullet points please".
Most big-picture thinkers love brainstorming and coming up with ideas but don't like getting bogged down in detail. Typically, they prefer to leave the implementation of their ideas over to others.
This is where micro-thinkers step in. Micro-thinkers love details and executing plans but are often prone to overthinking. Unlike big-picture thinkers, they enjoy the nitty-gritty. They prefer to tweak and edit over starting something from scratch. As students, they're often easy to recognise because they highlight absolutely everything in their notes, sensing that all of it is important.
Four questions to help you see the big picture
Regardless of preference, most of us default to zooming in whenever we’re worried. Indeed, pressure and anxiety instinctively draw us into an emergency mode, where we find ourselves wired toward taking action. That’s why we naturally get stuck in the immediate delivery of tasks whenever we’re stressed, rather than taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. Instead of thinking our way out of a problem and then acting, we act first and then think.
Of course, taking action isn’t necessarily bad. Nor is focusing on the nitty-gritty. It makes us feel like we have some control over the situation. But it often also has us lose sight of the broader context, meaning we miss vital clues on how to improve our situation.
When we’re in survival mode, decisions about the future often appear impossible to navigate. We know we should be hovering above our problems like a helicopter. But instead, we drive the equivalent of a unicycle so deep into the swamp that our wheel gets stuck. Eventually, we need a tractor (or a coach) to rescue us.
Below, I’ll suggest four simple questions you can answer whenever you need to zoom out. They’ll help you gently shift your focus from the detail to more strategic and level-headed thinking.
Question #1: What if?
I ASSUME = I make an ASS out of U and ME.
It might take a minute to appreciate the above, but I sometimes use this equation as a reminder that assumptions always colour our perspective.
Those assumptions help simplify the world, which makes decision-making easier. But they’re often wrong or incomplete. That’s where a targeted “What if?” question can help you look beyond your earlier data and experiences.
Imagine you being told you’re about to be made redundant. Once you’ve absorbed the initial shock, you decide to make the best of the situation. Consider the difference between these two questions you might ask yourself.
What can I do to make the best of this redundancy package?
What if this redundancy package was the best thing to have happened to me in the last five years? What would I need to do to make that happen?
The first keeps you in the here and now and in the practical realm, while the latter gets you to be more strategic. What if? allows you to zoom out beyond the day-to-day. It bypasses the many practical considerations and assumptions that might keep you stuck, making it easier to devise a proper action plan. By stepping into a different scenario, you force yourself to think beyond any previous solutions that may have worked in the past.
A What if? question disrupts your thinking. It urges you to come up with a more innovative approach instead of sticking to the tried and tested one.
Question #2: To what end?
In a popular TED Talk on long-term planning, futurist Ari Wallach talks about the danger of short-termism when trying to solve today's problems. He says the only way to tackle this mindset is by regularly asking ourselves: To what end?
To what end? is a neutral question, but it forces you to let your mind wander towards what might come once you've solved this particular problem or dealt with whatever is causing you anxiety.
In a previous article, I listed some practical tips for creating a more precise vision in life. To what end? is a simple question that helps you picture that life vision.
Its answers will help you explore what might be different once you've taken that next step, changed employer, finished that course, or made that financial investment. You start to visualise how things could look one, five or ten years from now as a result of the decision you make today.
Or, go nuts and picture what life might look like a hundred years from now as a result of taking a particular course of action.
Question 3: Who else?
Our mind is programmed to relate all sources of stress to ourselves immediately. Indeed, research shows that uncertainty and anxiety force us to zoom inwards and make us more selfish and less likely to see someone else's perspective.
Even if we consider ourselves genuinely nice people, we can't help becoming more self-centred as soon as we start facing more pressure. We stop being able to see beyond how shitty things are for us personally, so it's pretty much Me! Me! Me!
Asking Who else is impacted by this? allows you to scoot past your ego. In coaching, we call this an ecology check. It makes you look at the impact of your actions and decisions – or lack thereof – on those around you.
Think of it this way: there are eight billion people on the planet – everyone basking in their own uniqueness while assuming nobody else could possibly be going through whatever they're going through right now. Who else? encourages you to forge a connection with those millions of others who might indeed be feeling the exact same sensations and stress as you are right now – even if for different reasons and in different circumstances. There can be a lot of comfort in that.
Expanding your focus beyond yourself and towards your community, society and perhaps future generations even makes you a nice person to be around overall.
Question #4: Up or down the ladder?
Next time you're stressed, imagine holding on to an imaginary ladder.
Standing at the very bottom rung of that ladder, all you can see are the dull specifics of whatever's occupying your mind. Maybe Suzanne from Accounts is giving you grief about your expenses again, or you're upset because a client is behind on their payment.
Whatever the issue, picture yourself stepping up a few rungs. Now notice how your perspective changes. Your problems are still there, but they're starting to look a little bit smaller. It's not that they've become less urgent or important. You simply view them in proportion to a broader context. From that point of view, you might start to feel grateful for being in a secure job or take note of all those clients who did pay you on time this month.
Climb even further up that ladder, and you may notice the larger world out there – one where work is just one element of what's making you happy in life – alongside a wonderful partner, stimulating friends, or lovely home. Or perhaps you see none of those, but instead, you realise you need to leave your job because those 60-hour workweeks are hardly conducive to having a personal life.
I saw a fellow coach refer to this as the ladder of consciousness. Depending on the situation and your stress levels, you can choose to climb up or down that ladder.
The higher you climb, the more you'll connect with a more authentic version of yourself – one that's clear on its purpose and mission in life. Picture yourself on top of that ladder, and you'll have stepped into the most unshakeable and courageous version of yourself, where even the most challenging life events can feel like worthwhile challenges.
Conclusion: The bigger picture
Whether you see yourself as a micro or macro thinker, being able to switch perspectives is essential when it comes to living a flourishing and meaningful life.
Being strategic and asking the right questions will remind you how we operate in a much broader context. That doesn't make your worries any less real or valid, but it will remind you that you have choices.
So, the next time you feel stressed, remember to ask your self What If? To What End? Who Else? and Up or Down?
Notice how your perspective changes. While seeing the big picture in times of stress doesn't come easy, forcing yourself to look beyond the here and now is a great way to calm your nervous system and get unstuck.
And if you really want to dial up the zooming out, remember the words of Joe Rogan when he was still a decent person: "We're on a f*cking rock flying through space!!"
If that doesn't offer you perspective, nothing will.