We love to debate minutiae

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If you’re below the age of 125, you have heard people saying one of more of these phrases about losing weight:

  • Don’t eat before you go to bed because fat doesn’t burn as efficiently
  • If you cut your carb intake and raise your protein level, you can lose lots of weight quickly
  • If you eat fruit in the morning, it’s easy on your digestive system and your metabolism will speed up

I always laugh at these things because they’re so absurd. Maybe they’re correct, or maybe not, but that’s not really the point.

The point is that we love to debate minutiae.

We love to debate details at the completely wrong level of analysis.

When it comes to weight loss, 99.99% of people only need to know 2 things: Eat healthier and exercise more. Only Olympic athletes need to know more.

But instead of accepting these simple items and acting on them, we debate calories and trans fats and Atkins and South Beach.

Why? Because we love to debate minutiae.

When we do, we somehow feel satisfied with ourselves. We might have just spun our wheels, and failed at changing anyone’s mind (and our ideas certainly weren’t changed because who knows more about trans fat than us?). But we feel like we really expressed ourselves, and it’s a good feeling.

The problem is that the feeling is totally illusory when it comes to getting anything done. Ironically, debating minutiae is the easiest way to get nothing done: Imagine the last time you and your friend talked about this stuff. Did you go for a run afterwards? Of course not.

Because we love to debate minutiae, which absolves us from actually having to do anything.

I prefer to do it another way. Let the fools debate the details. I’d rather get something done by keeping it simple and actually doing it.

Who wins at the end of the day? The self-satisfied people who heatedly debate some obscure details? Or the people who sidestep the entire debate, recognize the underlying essence of the issue, and quietly get it done?

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14 Comments

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  1. Define “eat healthier”. Once you’ve defined this describe to me how you know this. This should be fun to watch. I understand your broader point and agree. But you’re taking it to the other extreme. Ignoring all specificity to the point ambiguousness.

  2. Awesome post… I like the discussion on self-satisfying and pointless debates – kind of a hard idea to put into words… and also the weight-loss topic. I think all anybody needs to know about weight loss is the 1st law of thermodynamics… in a nutshell: if you burn more energy than you take in, you will lose weight… it doesn’t matter what kind of calories you take in, or your “genetic predisposition” to anything, it is an indisputable law of physical reality.

  3. You COULD simplify it as, “The way to save money is to not spend it,” but I thought I learned something a little different from you and this site: I’m not looking for that. I want to spend it. I want to spend it in smart ways that give me a return.

  4. Written like someone who’s been thin his whole life… :-)

    I have two quibbles with this:

    1) The low carb stuff really does work, and to much greater than the 0.01% degree that you imply. It is one of the few relatviely new pieces of common wisdom out there that has a big impact, so that meme does need to spread.

    2) In an increasingly specialized society, most of the rewards accrue at the margin. There’s a big difference in income between the the best golfer and the second-best golfer; the best search engine, and the second-best search engine, and so on. So if you’re competing, minutae matter.

  5. Losing weight is not the point of the article. Or you are doing the exact thing that the article is talking about – debating minutiae. A constructive debate would be that you think we DON”T love to debate minutiae or that debating minutiae is actually very important than actually doing.

  6. The devil’s in the details. The big picture doesn’t even exist without all the minutiae.

  7. Nice post, Ramit.

    I think this trait of debaging minutiae comes out in the culture of long meetings that is common in many (especially big ) companies. Meetings should rarely take more than 1 hour.

  8. I really like this post.

    The way I interpret this post (and I could very well be wrong), Ramit is referring to minutiae as _trivial_ detail, rather than merely _small_ details. It is the fact that a detail is relatively incidental to the outcome that categorizes it as minutiae for the purposes of this post. So we might say that minutiae are identified not by scope (eg. specificity/ambiguity, or small/large), but by degree of relation to the main point or goal that is being reached for.
    Am I on the right track?

    Looking at personal experiences, I think that sometimes this stems from the pleasure we get from being ‘right’… it is easy to blind ourselves to the insignificance of facts if we’re (consciously/unconsciously) using our own knowledge of these facts to boost our own sense of self-worth. Eg. I might feel like I accomplished something if I read a book or skimmed a website and came away knowing a specific ‘fact’, and I’m not going to go out of my way to question whether this ‘fact’ is really important or not, because it will only do my ego a disservice to find out that I’ve wasted my time. And so we often come to blow out of proportion the significance of these facts that we’ve learned.

    Some details matter, others don’t. No easy way to simplify this. I guess it’s just important to work at eliminating our blind spots — especially blind spots that make us feel better about ourselves, because those are often the most difficult to spot and face head-on.

  9. Most love debate minutiae for the reason that they dont have anything great to do any way. No big goals set in their life. Donot believe they can make any impact any other way.

  10. I agree with Ramit. It may very well be true that low-carb diets work wonders in a flash, or that some kinds of sugar are better than others. But most self-styled health experts spend twice as much time gossiping about calories as they spend actually doing anything about their health (or weight.)

    If you have a burning desire to follow every health rule in the book, there will be plenty of time to ponder the details of what to eat when — after you’ve mastered basics like exercising regularly and moderating food intake.

  11. There’s a good metaphor here for investing, too, namely that people love to debate what individual stocks will do over the next few weeks or months, when there’s overwhelming evidence that the majority of variation in portfolio returns is due to asset allocation, not stockpicking (i.e. you’re better off ignoring individual stocks completely and keeping your portfolio balanced than spending dozens of hours burrowing through financial statements looking for the next hot stock).

  12. Hahaha… really sharp point .GET IT DONE instead of wasting time over debate is true

  13. as a fat man i think it is better if we all take responcablity for our wieght issues. if we all just did some exersize before we go to bed then our carbonhydrate intake would lower effectantly

  14. I hate hate hate all the talk about gas prices. I’ve met several people who make six or seven figures and complain about spending an extra few hundred dollars a year on a commodity that’s been underpriced for years.

    And all that other stuff about weight loss, too.