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Trivial pursuit where nobody wins…

Written by John Kuder

Table Of Contents

Have you ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? (It has nothing to do with the disease.)

It’s an observation first published in 1955 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, an Englishman who had worked in the British Civil Service for years. It was a famously humorous essay about his observations of people working in a bureaucracy, but is applies to any workplace and even our own lives.

I’ve said many times that junk accumulates to fill the amount of storage space you have.

Triviality

Bikeshedding is the nickname given to a corollary of Parkinson’s Law that Mr. Parkinson created in 1957. He called it the “Law of Triviality.”

It goes like this: “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” He illustrated the idea with an exaggerated story about a committee meeting with three items on the agenda: discussing the construction of a nuclear power plant for $10 million, the construction of a bike storage shed for $2,000, and the coffee budget for the committee meetings. The committee spent two and a half minutes discussing the nuclear plant and forty-five minutes talking about the bike shed.

It is most disruptive in group discussions, because the trivial tasks are less complex and more comfortable to talk about. They are also likely to be familiar topics, like the coffee for the meetings, so everyone feels safe to have a strong opinion and share it.

Wasting Precious Time

Bikeshedding can cause you to waste your time. You might spend all your time doing something that doesn’t matter at all, like checking email 50 times a day, or endlessly scrolling through social media. Or you might use all your time doing something easy that really isn’t worth doing, just to check off an item on a list.

When you’re trying to get stuff done, you need to focus first on what matters. If you start by spending your time on trivial tasks, you’ll always run out of time for the really important things.

How to Avoid Bikeshedding

  • Have a clear purpose for a meeting or a block of time.
  • Have a separate meeting for the big, complex issues.
  • Define a process for reaching a conclusion before you start.
  • Meet with the fewest people necessary who have the most to contribute via experience.
  • Focus on what is most important, which is usually doing more of what is already working.

Additional Reading:

Excellent and thorough article on Decision Lab site: https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/bikeshedding

Quotes from Parkinson’s essay: https://fs.blog/parkinsons-law/

Another Farnam Street article: https://fs.blog/bikeshed-effect/

Parkinsons Law article on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson’s_law

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_triviality

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