I'm looking for an idiom or saying that I could use when people are focusing too much on small details and not seeing the big picture.

A couple that come to mind are "being penny-wise and pound foolish" and "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic". However, the former doesn't fit what I'm thinking of because the present activity might not be wise. The latter implies too much about impending doom.

For example, let's say some company is spending all their time refining a small detail in their product, while ignoring a major opportunity shift in the industry. What phrase could I use there?


15 Answers 15


Expending disproportionate effort on trivial matters is sometimes known as bike­shedding, or Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.

Jeff blogged about the phenomenon in the context of it being a problem on Stack Overflow...

  • This captures exactly what I was referring to, thanks!
    – mark
    Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 18:39

cannot see the forest for the trees

fail to grasp the main issue because of overattention to details.


  • 1
    often used in philosophy as example for category mistake (fallacy)
    – Hauser
    Commented Sep 26, 2011 at 1:01
  • Also, 'can't see the wood for the trees'.
    – haha
    Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 22:12

One word I've seen used is nitpicking.


Majoring on the minors

carries the idea of the effort going to waste, without the implication that there is a problem with perception. Also, my personal favorite,

chasing rabbits

means going off on tangents, but is less formal and not as well-defined...someone might consider it a Jefferson Airplane reference :).

  • 4
    Some might consider chasing rabbits an Alice In Wonderland reference.
    – Unsliced
    Commented Sep 26, 2011 at 6:11
  • 1
    Thanks @Unsliced, I cannot believe I didn't realize that. That is where JA got it, too...the link is to lyrics for "Go Ask Alice". I had thought it came from observation of how silly dogs look when they chase rabbits.
    – JeffSahol
    Commented Sep 26, 2011 at 10:52

Some suggestions:

  • Can't see the wood for the trees
  • Has their priorities wrong
  • Focusing on the trivial
  • Wasting time on the trivial

Does "penny wise but pound foolish" fit?


Picking up pennies in front of a steamroller.


If I rightly recall, Laurence Peter called it "side issue specialism" in The Peter Principle (here)

Look after the molehills and the mountains will take care of themselves.


Strain a gnat and swallow a camel. Getting so focused on tiny details that you end up making a huge mistake in the big scheme of things. New Testament idiom spoken by Jesus in Matthew, chapter 23, verse 24.


pedant. For example, some pedant decided that I have to use at least 30 characters to have this answer accepted.

  • 5
    Pedants don't focus on unimportant details. Pedants think the details are important. Perhaps that demonstrates your point.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Mar 6, 2013 at 23:26

I think ' Missing the plot ' would be appropriate.


When concentrating too much on refining a product, as in your example, then:

Gilding the lily

is commonly used.

  • bean counter (as a idiom, also used in German)
  • not having a holistic view (next to your missing the big picture which is imho the best)

go off on a tangent

to pursue a somewhat related or irrelevant course while neglecting the main subject. Source- http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/go+off+on+a+tangent


How about using bagatelle? From Google dictionary:

  1. a thing of little importance; a very easy task. "dealing with these boats was a mere bagatelle for the world's oldest yacht club"

etymology: mid 17th century (in bagatelle (sense 2)): from French, from Italian bagatella, perhaps from baga ‘baggage’ or from a diminutive of Latin baca ‘berry’. bagatelle (sense 1) dates from the early 19th century.

If you're focused on bagatelles, you're avoiding the big picture, the hard stuff, etc.

  • When you use a quote from someone else, you MUST cite where you found it and use quote formatting to indicate it's a direct quote.
    – Laurel
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 18:25

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