Am I Tackling a Branch or a Root?

I don’t subscribe to many newsletters, but if I could only choose one to receive it would be James Clear’s 3-2-1 Thursday.

I’ve taken so many quotes from this weekly (short-but-insightful) collection of thoughts. From a recent newsletter, the following:

Remove the branches of a thorn bush today and you’ll avoid a scrape this year. But next year, you’ll face the same problem again.

Remove the root of the bush today, and the entire plant will die.

Are you solving problems at the branch level or the root level?

James Clear

I read this on a day I was literally cutting back thorn bushes and lamenting my lack of proper tools to get at/destroy the roots. I was doing all sorts of unpleasant work but was limited to a temporary solution (removing the branches). It blanketed the entire task with a sense of resigned defeat because the roots – the most important area for me to address – were still thriving below the surface.


In life when something is routinely frustrating or gets in the way of my productivity or life satisfaction how often do I try to tackle the problem “above ground” at the branch level? (That was a rhetorical question, by the way, to which I sheepishly answer: often.)

Am I willing to endure the misery (usually short-lived) of tackling the issue at the root? Though, if I’m being honest, I’m not always able to differentiate between a branch and a root…

As for those pesky real-life thorns on our property (that have now punctured/ruined two soccer balls), we have plans for a backhoe to come and remove them at the root.


Is there anything you’re currently attacking at the branch level that you’d like to eradicate further down, at the roots?

Header photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

18 thoughts on “Am I Tackling a Branch or a Root?”

  1. I also love my James Clear newsletter!! So many great tidbits in there. I save many of them. 🙂 This was an especially great point, I thought, also.

    1. I think you’ll really enjoy the newsletter. It’s short and sweet and almost always has something great to ponder.

  2. I think I’m probably the queen of “branch tackling.” But I’m going to start asking myself that question and see if I can’t change my ways (a little.) And, I subscribe to WAY TOO MANY newsletters- they’re seriously cluttering up my inbox- but this one sounds good and I’ll probably subscribe to it as well (ha ha… I’m a sucker for newsletters!)

    1. Sorry to suggest more e-mail clutter. I’m an “undersubscriber” and only get a handful of newsletters, but this is definitely my favourite!

  3. Great analogy. So true. I think I am a root girl now but know that I have been a branch tackler in the past whilst honing my inner ostrich and ignoring the roots.

    1. What a great – and also hilariously put – point: “honing my inner ostrich and ignoring the roots.” Sometimes I don’t know what is root vs. branch, but then other times I just want to pretend the roots don’t exist. And, I guess if my head is buried I’m likely not tackling the roots OR the branch?

  4. This makes me think of my closet (which is yet to be purged). I take a shirt (or a “bottom piece”) and decided put in in the donate pile…only to think of a creative way to work it back into rotation with a different pairing or accessory. I have even gone so far as to buy a new accessory to bring life back to a “needs to go” piece of clothing (insert face palm).

    1. Ha! But you love clothes and colour so maybe this isn’t an “issue” that needs tackling?

  5. Totally agree with the above commenters – this is *such* an effective visual for dealing with problems. I think in general I am a busy-busy branch-hacker, unfortunately, but maybe your imagery will help me reflect on some issues in life in a more intentional way so I can get at some roots, too. Thank you for writing this!

    1. I don’t necessarily have any answers here (I didn’t even provide a personal example this time), I just know that I definitely DO focus on branches instead of the root in some cases and I thought the James Clear quote was great mental picture to store away that, hopefully, in the future will gently nudge me toward doing some root excavation instead of wasting energy on the branches…

  6. The thing is I want to pull the roots up, but must continue to trim the branches a while longer until it’s the right time to tackle the roots. Am I clear as mud here? [pun intended]

    1. Ally – this is such a great point. Sometimes we don’t have the right tools to deal with the roots, but keeping the branches in check mean the roots are much easier to tackle when the time is right.
      And, to take this one step further, our response is almost always going to require a two-pronged approach: first is cutting back the branches and then comes tackling the roots. It is virtually impossible to get at the roots if the branches are still intact and gouging one at eye-level…

  7. Oh, that’s a good one. Does he have any insights on how to distinguish between roots and branches? Because like you, I think I sometimes *think* I am addressing the root when it’s just another branch! Also, it’s so much harder to tackle the root, so chopping at the branches often feels more doable?! I don’t know.

    1. Hmmm. No insights from Clear on differentiating between the two.
      Sometimes roots might be impossible to clear away, so I guess this whole exercise is an important time to realize that some problems maybe can/should only be tackled at the surface level?
      I feel like I’ve raised more questions (for myself) than I’ve answered with this post. But food for thought…

  8. LOVE that newsletter, too! And what a wonderful way of thinking of challenges and how we are tackling them (or, um, not). Simply trimming isn’t going to do much if the root is digging into your life and making it more difficult. I often do this with my to-do list – rather than a complete overhaul, during which I rethink my commitment to all of the things clamoring for my attention, I often just do mini updates and never bother to think about whether it’s still worthwhile for me to be engaged in whatever it is.
    The one time when trimming the branches helps me is if I just need to get a mini organization project done to help feel like my life isn’t quite as chaotic as it is. 😉

    1. Yes to needing to trim back the “chaos”.
      I don’t think it always works to dig up the roots, it’s more a self-awareness project when I’m faced with a personal dilemma to at least identify a root vs a branch!

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