I’ve never heard of the term bikeshedding until today, while I was browsing through the wonderful The Decision Lab web site. Here is the site’s tagline:
People make 35,000 decisions a day. We decode them to create transformational change for people, products, and organizations.
How could I avoid a website like that? It looks like I might get a few posts out of exploring this site…
It was while scrolling through a page dedicated to listing people’s biases that I came across the term bikeshedding. Also known as Parkinson’s law of triviality, bikeshedding describes our tendency to devote a disproportionate amount of our time to menial and trivial matters while leaving important matters unattended.
What really caught my eye was the example they used:
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.
That story eerily hits a little close to home.
Just this week I was trying to explain why the statement of cash flows is split into three different sections. As part of that explanation, I told a story of when I used to run my own personal training studio, and of the ongoing problems I had with cash flow. I’m sure while telling the story I went off on a tangent or two, but by the time I finished the five-minute story, I thought I had told a personal story that would make it easier for students to grasp the concept.
Well, that illusion was shattered when a student raised his hand and asked, “So why is the statement of cash flows split into three sections?”
Apparently, the story was of no help, and I am sure he was not the only student who had the same question; he was just confident enough to ask it. So I then gave a much briefer and straightforward answer that seemed to satisfy his concern.
In looking back on my week, I’ve told stories about my first experience actually doing accounting work (it did not go well), how one benefit of the pandemic was that that it enabled me to justify buying an iPad for distance learning, and shared my thoughts on the Gamestop/Robinhood controversy.
None of these dealt directly with the content of the course.
As the post on bikeshedding notes, it can have negative consequences on personal productivity because it causes us to manage time inefficiently. 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.
That all makes sense; after the first week, I am already about 30 minutes behind where I had hoped to be, which is about a 20% difference. In hindsight, it’s probably all of my bikeshedding.
So at least now I am in the first step towards fixing the problem – I’m aware of the issue and it has a name.
It’s going to be hard to fix; it’s so much fun to share all my stories of what college was like 45 years ago. I’m sure my students love hearing about my glory days… 🙂
Please don’t tell me those stories are trivial if so, I might need to change the name of my blog from Borden’s Balthier to Borden’s Bikeshedding…