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I'm looking for an idiom, proverb or saying that can be used for describing a situation that someone focus on the minor problems in their life rather than the basic problems that have caused those minor ones. ​​

When somebody acts like this, we Iranians would say in Persian:

"This person is like someone who has lost his horse and is looking for its horseshoes!" (= he has forgotten about "the lost horse" as his main problem, while he knows as long as he doesn't find the horse, the horseshoes will be useless!)

How do you describe this situation in English? Is there any idiom equivalent to that Persian proverb?

I have found "put the cart before the horse", can I use it for describing people who act like this?

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12 Answers 12

up vote 25 down vote accepted

You may say: Not see the forest for the trees.

  • to pay too much attention to details and not understand the general situation not see the wood for the trees

    • Company officials were so involved in the talks, they couldn't see the forest for the trees and didn't realize their employees were willing to strike.

The Free Dictionary

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I think this is the best answer. I also like "straining gnats but swallowing camels" but it doesn't have the same connection between the small problems and the big problem that "Can't see the forest for the trees" does. – Kevin Feb 22 at 19:24
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Isn't it about paying attention to insignificant details instead of trying to comprehend the whole? – enkryptor Feb 24 at 11:31
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I never realized it was "for" - I always thought it was "through" - thanks! – Raystafarian Feb 24 at 12:02
    
Suggests nothing about how one prioritizes or perceives their problems, and means whole/part distinction failure. – Jim Reynolds Feb 24 at 13:49

The one that came to mind first was "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

It doesn't have the sense of doing a related task, like the horse and horseshoes idiom. It can mean doing something completely pointless in the face of a larger problem, but some folks see it more as fiddling with something that is doomed to fail, so it may not best capture your meaning.

I think "missing the big picture" as others have suggested might be closer to what you're looking for, because it means focusing on details instead of the whole problem (which is similar to not seeing the forest for the trees).

There is also "treating the symptoms and not the cause" which means that someone is trying to solve many small problems over and over that could all be solved at once and permanently if the underlying problem causing them was solved.

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The OP described the situation as when "someone focus on the minor problems in their life rather than the basic problems that have caused those minor ones". I think treating the symptoms instead of the problem is the most suitable idiom - although it isn't as colorful as the original. – laugh Feb 22 at 20:21
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@laugh I agree, but I got the sense that the OP was looking for something that was slightly derogatory and everything I can think of other than the "deck chair" idiom has a fairly neutral tone. Rearranging the deck chairs is just plain stupid, but missing the big picture and getting caught up in the symptoms is something anyone could end up doing. – ColleenV Feb 22 at 21:23

As a 'Nerd' - I'm surprised this isn't a leading contender yet - I always think of the term Bike Shedding

TL;DR: The idea is that people will pay attention to what they understand - the minor details - to the point that they spend months on minor minutia that bears no real importance... while fast tracking major decisions.

Months get spent debating the location, size, color, etc of a "bike shed"... and the layout of the Nuclear Power Plant gets approved in days.

I'm not pointing fingers as I get sucked into those discussions just like everyone else, but the bikeshedding-to-action ratio is fabulously high.

Wikipedia: Law of Triviality

Parkinson's law of triviality is C. Northcote Parkinson's 1957 argument that members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.[1] He observed that a committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important but also a far more difficult and complex task.

The law has been applied to software development and other activities.[2] The term bike-shedding or the bike-shed effect was coined as a metaphor to illuminate the law of triviality; it was popularised in the Berkeley Software Distribution community by the Danish computer developer Poul-Henning Kamp in the mid-1990s[3] and has spread from there to the whole software industry.

Wiktionary: Bikeshedding

The term was coined as a metaphor to illuminate Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Parkinson observed that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bikeshed, while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively. It was popularized in the Berkeley Software Distribution community by Poul-Henning Kamp[1] and has spread from there to the software industry at large.

BikeShed.com

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. Richard P. Feynmann gives a couple of interesting, and very much to the point, examples relating to Los Alamos in his books.

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is here.

Further reading:

http://www.bikeshed.com/
http://wiki.hackerspaces.org/The_Bikeshed_Anti-Pattern

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Bike-shedding has connotations of focusing on easier issues (not just less important ones) and working in a team. It's a very useful idiom, but not (I think) quite what's being sought here. – Kyle Strand Feb 24 at 17:06

Ditto on "can't see the forest for the trees". That's probably the best and most common idiom.

Another phrase is, "penny wise but pound foolish". Meaning, he worries about pennies -- a small unit of money -- but not about pounds -- a larger unit of money. This is a common phrase in the United States, even though pounds are British money.

Another possibility is "nearsighted": the person can only see the details and not the big picture.

"Put the cart before the horse" is a little different. It means the person is doing things in the wrong order. Like, "Wait, we have to decide exactly how the new product will work before we can write the advertisements for it. You're putting the cart before the horse."

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It's often called...

displacement activity - an ​unnecessary ​activity that you do because you are ​trying to ​delay doing a more ​difficult or ​unpleasant ​activity

There are lots of idiomatic "sayings" in this general area - Fiddling while Rome burns, Ignoring the elephant in the room, etc., but one would need an exact context to decide whether anything like that was appropriate. For example, Unable to see the wood/forest for the trees wouldn't make much sense if you were talking about someone who's clearly in an anguished state, but keeps talking about trivial things rather than discussing her actual problem.


Putting the cart before the horse is a "related" expression that's normally a figurative reference to doing one of two things before the other in contravention of what would normally be expected (or of mistakenly assuming one thing caused another, when in reality the relationship is the other way around). It's unlikely to be used in the same context as "displacement activity".

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Is displacement activity used in casual speech in England? I haven't heard it used in the U.S. My first guess about likely meaning would have been more or less correct, but it has a ring of psychological jargon rather than casual idiom. – Adam Feb 22 at 18:39
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@Adam: Define "casual speech". Are we talking about the significant (and rather alarmingly, increasing) proportion of American citizens with limited fluency in both written and spoken English? Many of whom wouldn't understand and/or generate a multi-syllable word like displacement? Putting those people aside, I don't think displacement activity is a particularly "high-falutin" expression. – FumbleFingers Feb 22 at 18:50
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My understanding of "displacement" is that it means doing some unrelated to the real issue. For example, you know you need to talk to your son about his drug problem, but instead you frantically wash the dishes. So I don't think it's quite what the OP is asking for: It's not focusing on a symptom rather than the root cause, but distracting yourself with something unrelated. – Jay Feb 22 at 21:42
    
@FumbleFingers As far as I can remember, I've never before encountered the expression, and (if I am permitted to make the assessment) I consider myself fairly well-read, well-educated, and well-spoken. – Kyle Strand Feb 24 at 17:14
    
Though in context it seems like it would be fairly easy to understand. – Kyle Strand Feb 24 at 17:15

Big Picture

This idiom is so common, that many native English speakers use it without realizing it makes little sense literally. Cambridge Idiom Dictionary defines it as "the most important facts about a situation and the effects of that situation on other things." That seems to fit perfectly with your usage case. If "someone focus on the minor problems in their life rather than the basic problems that have caused those minor ones. ​​"

We might say that that person has lost sight of the big picture, isn't focusing on the big picture, isn't dealing with the big picture, etc. An article about an increase in crime in a particular region notes that while some of the crime problem is related to alcohol, most of it is not. This is concisely stated: Looking at the big picture, alcohol-related crimes don’t make up a large portion of crimes in general in Zeeland.

The big picture does not necessarily have only negative aspects to it. Sometimes it is good to look at the big picture to understand positive developments. An article on NBA.Com about a basketball team's trading strategy is titled At Trade Deadline, Front Office Kept Big Picture in Mind

It can be used as an adjective too. The article above goes into some depth: The multi-team deal ... was ...relatively minor. When stepping back, however, and examining the broader, big-picture objectives of the organization, it becomes clear that the transaction was executed with the same intent and purpose that fueled the Sixers’ dramatic moves at the end of each of the past two deadlines.

I have heard it used as an interjection too: _"Whoah! Big picture! Slow down everyone. Let's think Big Picture, here. We have to figure out why these kids keep getting sick."

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Why do you say it makes little sense literally? – Kyle Strand Feb 24 at 17:17

Sweat the small stuff

  • Paying close attention to the trivial details
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But this is usually don't sweat the small stuff. It's what you would tell a friend if you wanted them to not be so stressed over things that weren't important. – ColleenV Feb 23 at 18:18

In "actual" psychological mumbo jumbo, one might say a person focusing on minor problems rather than the bigger, major issue that is the true source of the problems would be engaging their "avoidance mechanism".

  • Yes, my husband has been much better about keeping the garage clear. But I suspect that's just his avoidance mechanism at work, so I won't complain as often about him bringing home so much junk from his flea market trips.

This answer is closely related to "displacement activity". The difference, I suspect, is in the hard-science versus soft-science dichotomy (hard as in solid, something "touchable" to study; not hard as in difficult). I suspect "displacement activity" would be preferred in the "hard sciences" (physics, chemistry, biology); and that "avoidance mechanism" would be preferred in the "soft sciences" (psychology, psychiatry, philosophy). I don't have any sources to back up that claim. But that's how I would choose between the two phrases. If I wanted to convey association with "hard sciences" I would use "displacement activity", otherwise I would probably use "avoidance mechanism"

  • Also, FYI People are not limited to one "avoidance mechanism", nor limited to one "avoidance mechanism" per major problem they don't want to deal with, humans are very resourceful and creative.
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While Forest/trees is probably the best contemporary answer, there is a Biblical one as well. Jesus said (paraphrasing) "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?"1 The saying relates to paying attention to the minor sins of others.

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This is more about not throwing stones from a glass house than worrying about where the horseshoes are when the horse has disappeared. I'm not sure it captures the idea the OP is trying to express. – ColleenV Feb 23 at 20:00
    
I thought about this too. @ColleenV I don't think it loses any of the meaning of the original, but it certainly has an additional connotation not present in the original. – Kyle Strand Feb 24 at 17:16

In a meeting when too much time is spent in nitty gritty detail one may impatiently say he is :

lost in details

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You might say this person is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Making a mountain out of a molehill is an idiom referring to over-reactive, histrionic behaviour where a person makes too much of a minor issue.

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