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When You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

This US English idiom* comes up a lot in software development. Why and what is it?

It means being too close to a problem that you can’t see the bigger picture. Mostly this means that you have no idea why you started doing something, you’re so busy in the middle of executing a path of work that you can’t understand why it’s so important. Or you’re thinking so hard about how to solve a problem that you can’t put the basic steps together to make any progress.

So what do you do about it?

The best course of action is usually, without doubt, to step away. Find yourself some time, some space away from the work to forget about it. Even if the work is urgent, spending time doing something else completely will help clear your head and enable you to think logically about outcomes.

Inspiration often strikes in the shower. Inspiration strikes when you are least expecting it.

For larger problems, try larger amounts of time away from the work. For complete reset, try a vacation.

Problems always appear smaller when your head is in a place to best tackle. Get your head out of the trees.

* – in UK English the phrase is “Can’t See the Wood for the Trees”