January 8, 2024

Bikeshedding: Or focusing on what doesn’t really matter

When I was in high school, my school would hold a yearly contest dubbed the “Business Olympics,” where teams of students would be tasked with a challenge and present their solutions to a panel of professionals for judging. It sounds nerdy, and it was, but my friends and I were obsessed with it.

For our senior year, the teachers asked us to develop a fundraiser for a local food bank. Immediately, my team gathered in a friend’s basement to map out our presentation. As we’re going through our proposal, we acted out the process the food bank uses to collect and distribute resources. Acting out is literal here – we had a whole little skit with a can of beans being passed down the line.

But we kept flubbing it. Somebody would forget their line, the props would be used out of order, and the whole thing became a thorn in our side. We practiced, and practiced, and practiced. Eventually, after what seemed like hours, we got to a point where we were pretty happy and called it a day.

We spent more time on that silly skit than we did on the rest of the presentation put together. All of that for an ultimately pointless 30-second bit from just the introduction of a 15-minute pitch. We got caught way, way down in the weeds.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that skit was a textbook case of a phenomenon known as “bikeshedding.” Also called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, bikeshedding is where we tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time on trivial matters at the expense of tending to the actually important ones.

The name bikeshedding, and the law, comes from a story developed by British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson (also the namesake of the other Parkinson’s Law, that tasks expand to fill the time given them). Parkinson describes a hypothetical financial committee meeting with two items on the agenda:

  1. A proposal to spend millions on a nuclear power plant
  2. A proposal to spend a few hundred dollars on a bike shed

Given that agenda, we’re likely to spend a few minutes on the power plant – and then the bulk of our time on the bike shed. Most of us aren’t experts in nuclear power, so we’ll just go ahead and rubber-stamp that item. But all of us consider ourselves experts in the more everyday issues of paint colors and bike storage, so we’ll passionately debate the bike shed for the remainder of the hour, maybe even tabling it for a future meeting. We escaped the big, hard stuff so we can instead focus our attention (and leave our mark) on the little details.

In my teenage presentation, we disproportionately spent our time on that bean can skit instead of focusing on the project’s strategy and budget. At work, we’ll get distracted by the kerning on our company logo instead of building out our distribution network. In public policy, we’ll argue over small community grants, but wave through multibillion dollar spending bills. And in the rest of life, we’re apt to power through the little tasks on our to-do lists instead of tackling the big projects.

Our preference for the trivial is one of the reasons why complication is so dangerous in work and communication: it gives us escape routes. By contrast, simplifying can help us break this habit.

To beat bikeshedding, focus. If you have one really important thing to deal with, make that your meeting or your day’s only priority. More often than not, the little things can wait. Push them to a separate meeting, handle them over email, or just ignore them for a little bit. When you tackle the big thing, then come back at another time and do your housekeeping.

It’s a new year, and many of us have big goals. As you’re working on them, just make sure you’re not accidentally spending your time on bike sheds instead.

(Though, I’m still an advocate of getting the little things right.)

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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