Picture of Michael Lee

Stop, step back

Written on May 12, 2022

There’s a few sayings that mean the same thing:

“Don’t miss the forest for trees.”

“Make sure you see the big picture.”

“Focus on value.”

“Make sure you’re on the right track.”

Essentially when you’re deep in work, it’s beneficial to pause from time to time and make sure you know the why behind the work and that you’re working on the right things.

Once when I was in art school, I was working on a portrait I was really proud of. For some reason I had decided to work on the left eye of the portrait first. And boy was I proud of how realistic the eye was.

But then, my instructor walked by and asked me to stop and step back from my station. They asked me to look at the portrait and if I noticed something off?

I did…

My amazingly, detailed left eye was not inline with the right eye and thus threw off the entire portrait.

I had gone down the rabbit hole on this one detail that I missed how the work fit in-relation to the whole picture.

Instead I should’ve blocked in all the pieces of the portrait first, made sure that they were placed correctly in relation to each other, then added in the details.

How do you salvage a portrait with misaligned eyes? You could try to fix what you got. But it would always be off.

The best way to fix the portrait, was to erase and start over.

While I wish I could say I never made that mistake again, I still to this day find myself getting deep in the details of work.

I can say, with experience I can catch myself a lot sooner and pull back from the work I have at hand. But it’s a constant reminder to keep myself in check. Do I know why I’m working on what I’m working on? How does it fit into the big picture?

So what are some ways to stop and step back when in deep work?

  • Set up check points before going deep in your work to ask yourself, is this the most valuable thing to work on right now?
  • Ask yourself, if this thing you’re working on rolls up to the bigger goal you’re trying to achieve?
  • Find yourself a partner to help you take pause and help you assess if you’re on the right track.
  • If you’re working from a specification or agreement for work, pause from time to time and reread why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  • Go for a walk. Sometimes the physical act of walking away from your desk helps to assess what you’re working on. You’ll find the work doesn’t actually stop, but you might find a fresh new perspective.

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