The Devil is in the Details: Finding Self-Compassionate Ways to Complete Primary Goals in the Midst of Secondary Details

4 Giraffes and 1 Gaffe

4 teenage giraffes got ready to go to a concert.  Mac picked out his favorite black jeans, a black, long sleeve, scoop t-shirt, and a gold encrusted, black cap that read “Mac Life.” Natalie put on a purple shirt with bead accents on the bottom and the neck, black leather pants, and black heels with a slight purple accent.  Charlene had been talking to Natalie all day about how she wanted to go for an old school look. She found a thick gold chain and square lens, translucent framed glasses to complement a long black shirt and fitted black pants.  She even ordered gold aglets to accent her all black leather shoes.  Brian, perhaps the most daring of the group, had picked out an all white ensemble, choosing white skinny jeans, a white Henley baring the marking “ill” in gold, and triple white basketball sneakers.

The group spent all night getting ready, and couldn’t wait to show off their style.  By the time they met up, it was all they could talk about. Four mini fashion shows later, they realized they were late for the concert, and piled into Mac's Jeep.  They made it to the concert, but only got as far as the front gate.   They had been so caught up in the details of what they would wear to the concert that they forgot the most important part of concert preparation: to buy the tickets.

The Details

How often do we spend more time on the details than we do our fundamental goals?  You may not be able to relate to 4 teenage giraffes, but perhaps you spend more time decorating your office than you do completing the work needed to bring in or perhaps serve current clients.  Maybe you have a big project due tomorrow, but you spent 4 hours of time that you really needed to complete your work baking something for the presentation or picking out your outfit.  Or maybe, more likely, you have found yourself engaged in an internet search during work hours that does not require your immediate attention: clothes, accessories, restaurant reviews, and perhaps the biggest culprit webpages that discuss current events. 

Yes, I said it, current events.  If you spend 60-70 percent of your day gathering information about current events for which you are not responsible nor are you able to affect change where they are concerned, then you are wasting valuable time.  This time would probably be better spent taking care of your immediate needs and responsibilities.  While the world is under attack in many ways, the silent killer is undue stress.  And a great deal of undue stress comes from too much time focusing on the details, and not enough time focusing on fundamental tasks.

Dealing With The Details

The greatest problem with focusing on details over fundamental responsibilities is that it slowly builds up time debt.  When faced with this time debt, we become overwhelmed, and either try to deal with it all at one time or avoid dealing with it completely.  Both of which have deleterious effects on our bodies and minds.  They also tend to evoke shame and hopelessness.  We feel shame because we believe that we are to blame for the time debt, and we feel hopeless in being able to address what’s left in its wake.

A famous mindfulness phrase is simple, but powerful.  Do the work that is before you.  If the time debt has occurred, simply acknowledge it, and make a list of what you can do right now.  Also list what will help you do this work, and what will hinder this work.  Keep distractions (no matter how alluring) away.  My mother used to say that she didn’t keep chocolate in the house because she couldn’t resist devouring a ton of it.  What a genius!  If she wanted chocolate, all she had to do was buy a piece from the store.  Her goal was to be healthy and stay in shape, and she set herself up for success.  Phone application notifications are the biggest culprits of detail distraction today.  If they are not necessary to your fundamental work, turn them off.  

Knowing our limitations, and honoring them is true self-compassion.  Decide what you need in your life to be happy, and start to set up your home and work environments in ways that mirror those needs.  Give yourself time to practice breathing and self-compassion, so that your mind and heart are clear enough to tell you what they need.  Figure out which details distract you from your responsibilities the most, and move these distractions to a place where it is ok to engage in them.  Surf the web to your hearts content during your down time. 

Recovering From Radio Distraction

I once had an older patient who loved to listen to baseball games on his radio.  He was a diehard Red Sox fan.  He knew all the players, the lineups, the coaches.  He even knew how it affected the team to play in certain stadiums and at certain times of the day.  He brought his radio with him to work every day, and listened to games while completing his accounting work.

One day, he was involved in a terrible car crash.  He was mostly okay, but received a concussion.  He stayed home from work for a couple days, and when he returned he propped his radio next to his desk. When the game came on, he turned the radio up just loud enough so he could hear it.  The next day, this patient’s boss chewed him out for making several clerical errors on the previous day’s work.  After hearing this story, I told the patient that it seemed like some post-concussion symptoms interfered with his ability to listen to the game and focus on his work simultaneously.  A neurologist confirmed my hypothesis. 

The patient actually cried, when he told me that he had to leave his radio at home.  As it turns out, the last memory the patient had of his father was listening to a ball game on a radio.  Leaving the radio at home felt like having to go to work without his dad.  We tried everything to replace the radio in the interim, while the patient’s cognitive abilities returned to normal.  Then, I had a thought.  I asked the patient who his dad’s favorite baseball player was. It was Carl Yastrzemski. 

When I saw the patient the following week, I presented him with a laminated, old time picture of Carl punctured with a whole on top, and a metal chain running through it.  This patent hated to keep things in his pockets.  The only time I have ever seen someone hold something inanimate with so much love is maybe my nephew in France with a singing stuffed bee missing an eye from countless hugging and teething sessions.  The patient, to my knowledge, still wears the necklace even though he has long regained the cognitive capacity to successfully complete his work while listening to the radio. 

Compassion’s Approach to the Details

The compassionate approach to getting lost in the details is to acknowledge the details, to understand their significance, and (if we can) to replace them with something that helps rather than hinders our ability to successfully complete the tasks that lie before us.  We also have to assess whether our current roles at work and home are causing us suffering, which would be another reason to choose details over fundamental tasks.  In this case, we would have to make self-compassionate changes to our roles to avoid falling prey to detail distraction.

 Whatever the case may be, without shaming ourselves, we need to pay attention to what is necessary to avoid or respond adaptively to time debts caused by the distraction of details.  We need to be honest about how the details are helping and hurting us, and find other behaviors that give us the support found in out detail pursuits while allowing us to complete our fundamental responsibilities with the greatest ease.  Most importantly, we need to just do the work that is before us.  Believe it or not, the clothes, the restaurants, the décor, and even the news will wait.   

365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion.  Day 58.  In the Books.