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When I was in graduate school studying Adult Learning, I was taught a theory about two distinct ways people approach learning, or process new information: You’re either a part-to-whole learner, or a whole-to part learner.

Here’s a quick description of these two types:

Part-to-whole people ideally want to get a download on all of the steps and pieces first before attempting to digest the end game or bigger picture.

Whole-to-part people need to get a sense of the big picture first – the “where are we headed?” before being interested in diving into any details of the bits and pieces.

It’s important to note that you are either one or the other. There are no hybrids in this model. And if you’re one, you don’t understand how the other approach works at all, and visa versa.

From a learning design perspective, the idea is to keep both approaches in mind when putting together training. And while this idea has definitely proven useful to that end, I’ve actually found it to be even more valuable in a broader application:

Your processing mindset impacts more than how you approach learning or understanding, it also impacts your approach to creating, innovating, designing, and implementing.

Here’s how it shows up in real life:

I’m a whole to part. I am currently planning a kitchen remodel and I need a mental picture of what the entire kitchen is going to look like before I start talking about how many drawers I want. My husband is a part to whole. He needs to understand the island configuration before he can think about what it will look like in the end. Together we’re either a good balance or a recipe for frustration, depending on the day.

I have seen this frustration arise in work situations as well. For example, the irritated manger who asks: “Why is my employee so slow to grasp this idea?  Why can’t they just take it and run with it?” I always check back, “How did you go about explaining what it is that you want?” More often than not, the conflict originates because of a difference in their approaches.

Another common scenario is the endless project team meetings, where it’s a constant struggle to gain consensus on what the next steps are…or what the endgame is…or what the right timeline is…and…why are we talking about this again? It’s exhausting.

So how do you keep things moving? 

For whole to part processors:

Yes, it’s great to have a really vivid and inspiring picture of where you’re wanting to go and what it is you’re wanting to create and what you want it all to look and feel like. You want to know what you’re aiming towards and why. That vision is exciting. 

But in your day-to-day, it makes more sense to only dabble in the possibilities. Instead, look for ways to break the current vision down into smaller milestones that will get you building the system to support your vision, so when you’re ready at least that piece is done.

Give yourself a couple of clear end-game action steps each week to keep you forward-focused and checking things off that to-do list. Yes, they can feel like boring drudgery at times. But suck it up and dig in because it’s the only way you’ll gain momentum and progress towards that visionary big picture end.

For those part to whole processors:

Yes, its great to think through all the pieces and “Who will do what?” and “How do these connect?” and “Where can things go wrong?” That level of detail saves time in the end. But it can also cause you to spin your wheels on something that will never matter.

To avoid inaction, recognize where you don’t have to reach 100% mastery in order to move forward. Find those 1 or 2 items you can comfortable with and get those done. One clear step forward at a time.

And for the rest? Create a system where you can note your “future-relevant” thoughts as they come to mind for later research and reference, but don’t let them stall progress today.