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Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Why do we focus on trivial things? Bikeshedding explained

The Decision Lab
An Explainer
Originally posted: No idea

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 does this bias occur?

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.


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.

This bias may occur in psychotherapy when psychologist and patient focus on trivial issues that are easier to discuss or solve, rather than addressing critical, difficult issues.  There is a difference between creating a therapeutic attachment and bikeshedding.