Why do we focus on trivial things?

 

Bikeshedding

, explained.

What is Bikeshedding?

Bikeshedding, also known as Parkinson’s law of triviality, describes our tendency to devote a disproportionate amount of our time to menial and trivial matters while leaving important matters unattended.

Where this bias occurs

Do you ever remember sitting in class and having a teacher get off track from a lesson plan? They may have spent a large portion of your biology class time telling you a personal story and skimmed over important scientific theory. In such an instance, your teacher may have been a victim of bikeshedding, where they spent too long discussing something minor and lost track of what was important. Even though it may have been more entertaining to listen to their story, it did not help you acquire important information.

Although that scenario is one familiar to most, bikeshedding is an issue most commonly seen as a problem in corporate and consulting environments, especially during meetings. Imagine that at work, you have a meeting scheduled to discuss two important issues. The first issue is having to come up with ways in which the company can reduce carbon emissions. The second issue is discussing the implementation of standing desks at the office. It is clear that the first issue is more important, but it is also more complex. You and your coworkers will likely find it much easier to talk about whether or not to get standing desks, and as a result, a large portion of the scheduled meeting time is devoted to this more trivial matter. This disproportionate time allocation is known as bikeshedding and causes complicated matters to receive little attention.

Individual effects

Bikeshedding can have negative consequences on personal productivity because it causes us to manage time inefficiently. Every day, we have various tasks that we have to complete and bikeshedding causes us to disproportionately allocate time to these tasks. We end up spending too long on trivial tasks and leave ourselves no time to complete the more complex tasks, which tend to be more important in the grand scheme of things. Bikeshedding causes us to be short-sighted with our time allocation, going with the easiest task first because we think it will take less time to complete.

For example, if our to-do list for the day includes going to the grocery store, folding the laundry, and submitting our tax forms, we may spend more time getting groceries and folding laundry because these are easy, menial tasks. By the time we get around to submitting the tax forms, we barely have enough time left. As a result of bikeshedding, we have put off the most important task and wasted our time on things that are easy to check off our to-do list.

Systemic effects

Bikeshedding is most dangerous when it occurs in group settings because each individual ends up devoting more time to simple tasks, causing the overall time spent on trivial matters to snowball.

Our tendency to focus on trivial issues causes companies to operate at a suboptimal level because they do not allocate their time efficiently. This causes important proposals to take much longer than necessary to come to fruition, as they are left unattended for too long.

Bikeshedding can also cause the final product of a project to suffer because the team has spent most of its time working on small, simple parts of the project instead of the important complex parts. For example, in designing a flyer, a team may spend a long time picking out the font and color of text, leaving them with less time to decide on the text to include on the flyer, which is more important.

Why it happens

Bikeshedding occurs because trivial tasks are easier to comprehend than more complex issues; consequently, we feel more comfortable working on and discussing the simple issue.

In corporate settings, we are often asked to voice our opinions. It is much easier for us to spend time discussing an issue that we understand and that we know other people understand. We feel competent taking a stance on a topic we understand and use the opportunity to contribute.1 Other people then also want to contribute to show that they are listening and being an active member of a team, causing too much time to be spent discussing a trivial matter. These opinions often don’t actually add much value to the discussion and cause us to waste our time. By attempting to sound smart and voice our opinions, we shy away from major issues.

Another reason behind bikeshedding may be that we believe that the people putting forward a complex issue have a better understanding of it than we do.2 We don’t want to be the ones responsible for a complex matter and end up relying on the idea that someone else must already have spent time looking into it.

Why it is important

It is important to be aware of bikeshedding because it helps identify instances in which a valuable resource – time – is being wasted on trivial matters. Bikeshedding means that we are operating at a suboptimal efficiency and may not complete everything that we have set out to resolve.

Bikeshedding has implications in both our personal and group settings. Because of its ubiquity in our lives, it is vital that we try to counter the effects of bikeshedding. On a personal level, it affects our to-do lists and our individual goals. It can also influence our personal work productivity because we get off track by getting sucked into easy components of an assigned task. This impacts both efficiency and the final product.

For example, imagine that you are asked to write an article about Einstein’s theory of relativity. The theory of relativity is difficult to understand, so you spend a disproportionate amount of space in the article talking about Albert Einstein’s personal life, and only a few lines about the scientific breakthrough. Bikeshedding has caused not only your productivity to suffer, but the finished article as well, as it focuses on issues that are easy to understand and may not enhance your reader’s knowledge and understanding.

Bikeshedding may have even more serious implications on a group level because once an opinion is voiced on a simple issue, more and more people jump in to give their opinion. Time starts to snowball as all members of a team fall victim to bikeshedding. Time is not being managed effectively, and important issues that a corporation needs to tackle end up only having a few minutes of people’s attention.

How to avoid it

An awareness of bikeshedding is vital to countering its effects. There are various techniques that can be used in order to ensure that a group or team is being efficient with the time they spend on each topic.

One method to avoid bikeshedding is to have a separate meeting for any major, complex issue. If the topic is brought into a meeting with a long agenda, it can get lost under the trivial issues. However, if it is the main and only purpose for a meeting, it is difficult to avoid talking about it. Keeping meetings specific and focused on a particular issue can help counter bikeshedding.1 It may also be a good idea to have a particular person appointed to keep the team on task and pull back focus if the discussion does get sidetracked.

Another way of pulling the focus onto particular issues is to have less people present at the meeting. Bikeshedding is a big problem in group settings because simple issues entice multiple people to speak, which can drag them out. By only having the necessary people present at a meeting, even if a trivial issue is discussed, it will take up less time since there are fewer people to voice their opinion.

How it all started

The term bikeshedding comes from Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s metaphorical example when he described the law of triviality. Parkinson was a British naval historian and is most commonly known for coming up with Parkinson’s law, which states that work expands to fill the time allocated to it. Parkinson’s law suggests that if you allocate an hour to a task that actually only takes 30 minutes, psychologically, the task ends up acquiring the complexity of an hour-long task.3

After putting forward Parkinson’s law in 1955, Parkinson put forward a lesser-known phenomenon, the law of triviality, to describe how organizations tend to focus on trivial issues and put aside more complex matters.

Parkinson’s law of triviality states that the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely proportional to its actual importance in the grand scheme of things. What this means is that the less important an issue is, the more time is spent on it.1

Parkinson outlined the law of triviality through a metaphorical story.1 He asked people to imagine a financial committee meeting where there were three matters on the agenda:

  1. A proposal for a £10 million nuclear plant
  2. A proposal for a £350 bike shed
  3. A proposal for a £21 annual coffee budget

He suggested that the committee would breeze through the first proposal because it is complex and it is more difficult for people to voice their opinion on a complicated issue. The committee would quickly move on to the proposal for the bike shed and spend far more time discussing it than they did the nuclear plant. They would spend even more time discussing the coffee budget, as the simplest of the three proposals.1

Due to this example, Parkinson’s law of triviality became known as bikeshedding, which is the term more colloquially used today.

Example 1 - Bikeshedding and data science

Bikeshedding can also occur when a team is faced with a large amount of data. Large data sets can be overwhelming and complicated to understand, which leads to an attempt to summarize the data into a more digestible format. While it may be important to summarize large data sets so that more people can understand the information being presented, bikeshedding causes focus to be placed on menial components of the summarization.

Reid Holmes, a professor of computer science, describes a scenario in software engineering, where scientists get bogged down on simple issues of summarization of large data sets.4 They may spend too much time deciding on the program to use, what the column names should be, and then how to format those columns. During all that time, the data is just sitting there. It is not being made a priority because it is overwhelming, so the scientists focus on simple decisions instead. The important component of the project, the data, gets sidelined for administrative tasks.

Even the decision to present data in columns, known as tabular summarization, may be a result of bikeshedding. It can seem like the simplest way to organize the data but grouping together large amounts of data into only a few columns can cause us to lose sight of relationships between discrete data points.4

Homes points out that bikeshedding causes too much time in software engineering to be allocated to formatting tasks, and the instinct to use a simple method of summarization can cause us to miss out on interesting ideas expressed by data.4

Example 2 - Zoom may help solve the problem of bikeshedding

Months into the global pandemic caused by COVID-19, Zoom meetings have become the new normal. Work has moved online and we are no longer meeting in boardrooms to discuss important issues. While we may miss in-person interaction, avoiding bikeshedding may be one of the upsides of conducting meetings on Zoom.5

As mentioned in a Globe and Mail article, the basic Zoom package allows people to have 45-minute meetings for free. Harvey Schachter, the writer of the article, suggests that this is a perfect antidote for bikeshedding because it is a built-in time management tool.5 Knowing that our team only has 45 minutes to conduct a meeting may help us to stay focused on the important issues. Zoom even gives us reminders of how much time is left, meaning if the discussion has gotten off track, these reminders may help pull the group back to the important issue. Zoom takes the place of an in-person timekeeper and may help ensure that the purpose of the meeting is attended to because going overtime is not an option.

Moreover, Zoom may help with the proposed method of diminishing the likelihood of bikeshedding by only having one item on a meeting agenda. Parkinson’s law states that issues will end up expanding to the time allocated to them, meaning that if we devote an entire 45-minute meeting to an issue, we are likely to use the entire Zoom call discussing that issue. This can be useful for complex ideas that require lengthy discussions.

Summary

What it is

Bikeshedding describes our tendency to spend too much time discussing trivial matters, and too little time discussing important matters as a result. It describes the inverse relationship between time spent and the importance of an issue.

Why it happens

Bikeshedding occurs because it is much easier to discuss simple issues that we adequately comprehend. In group settings, we often look to voice our opinions as a sign of participation and we are more likely to be able to talk about a relatively simple issue because it is daunting to discuss a complicated issue, even if it is more important.

Example 1 – Bikeshedding and large data sets

Just as an important proposal can seem daunting, large data sets can be overwhelming to tackle. As a result, scientists may spend too much time discussing simple matters like which program to use, and not enough time analyzing the data. Another effect of bikeshedding is the tendency in data summarization to choose the simplest method, which is usually tabular. Grouping discrete data points can cause interesting relationships between data to be missed.

Example 2 – Zoom: the antidote to bikeshedding

Zoom is a video communications program, which has become very popular as we have transitioned to work-from-home because of COVID-19. The free version of Zoom only allows a 45-minute meeting. The set time of Zoom meetings can ensure that a good amount of time is devoted to important issues, or alternatively, can act as a method for keeping people accountable to not wasting too much time on trivial matters because of the time constraint.

How to avoid it

Bikeshedding can be avoided by attempting to remain on topic. In order to stay focused on important issues, we can implement single agenda-item meetings which makes it less likely that we get off track, or assign a specific person to ensure that we do not spend too much time on unimportant issues. Another way to limit bikeshedding is to have fewer people attend a meeting, as that way there will be less people to voice their opinion on trivial matters.

Sources

  1. Farnam Street. (2020, April 17). Why we focus on trivial things. https://fs.blog/2020/04/bikeshed-effect/
  2. Effectiviology. (n.d.). Bikeshedding and the law of triviality: Why people focus on minor issues. Retrieved September 1, 2020, from https://effectiviology.com/bikeshedding-law-of-triviality/
  3. Falconer, J. (2017, November 14). How to use Parkinson’s law to your advantage. Lifehack. https://www.lifehack.org/articles/featured/how-to-use-parkinsons-law-to-your-advantage.html
  4. Holmes, R., & Zimmerman, T. (2016). Look for state transitions in temporal data. In T. Menzies & L. Williams (Eds.), Perspectives on Data Science for Software Engineering (pp. 133-135). Elsevier.
  5. Schachter, H. (2020, July 18). Explaining ‘bikeshedding’: When trivial things waste meeting time: Bikeshedding, or the law of triviality, can often eat up precious minutes in meetings as attendees get caught up with trivial topics. The Globe and Mail.