Bikeshedding: Guilty As Charged

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… πŸ™‚

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…

87 thoughts on “Bikeshedding: Guilty As Charged

  1. I’m going to make an argument in favor of the occasional personal story. While we may think of moments like those as unimportant or misguided, I beg to disagree. One of the ways we connect the most with our students is by sharing personal things. Now I realize your audience is more sophisticated than mine, but whenever I wanted to recapture my students’ wandering attention, I often went to the Pete Springer story vault. Suddenly, they’re paying attention and back in my hands. I’m dead serious about this. When we share something about ourselves (and I’m sure it was somewhat connected to your lesson), students see us as no different than them. It humanizes us, and they feel a connection. That, my friend, is one of the most valuable lessons of teaching.

    Now, let me get back to one of my 35,000 decisions for the day. Should I choose Corona or Budweiser?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I’m with you, Pete. I think the students like to get to know their teachers on a more personal basis, and such stories often help. And even better if the story relates to the lesson you are trying to teach.

      And as a friend of mine told me a long time ago, there are two types of beer: Bud and free… πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’ll never forget one of my college professors, Jack Shaffer. I forget the title of the class, but we were studying the Holocaust and other highly emotional topics. After class (I think it was a 7:00-10:00 p.m. class once a week), he’d invite the class down to a local bar for a drink. I’m not saying I’d recommend all teachers do this, but it sure felt like it was his symbolic gesture to show us it doesn’t matter what any of our races or ethnicities were. It was a lesson I never forgot, and that makes a good teacher in my book.

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  2. I wanted to know how bikeshedding got its unusual name. But then you got off on a tangent, explaining what it is and how you’ve fallen victim to it. It seems part of my life has been wasted. I think I’ll just go ride a bike.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. well then how cool is that; my post about bikeshedding was also an example of bikeshedding. And as far as part of your life being wasted, that happens every time you read one of my posts.

      By the way, I just thought of a new term – nikeshedding. Its when people burn their Nikes and say they will never buy any more Nike products because of a controversial stance the company has taken…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I thought bikeshedding might have something to do with building a small shed to store your bike. But now that I’ve heard of Nikeshedding, I guess it means burning your bike, or something like that.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I remember taking a class on Ancient Greece once. I got the professor to launch into a dissertation on Genghis Khan. It was very interesting, but I knew it wouldn’t be on the test and I was tired of taking notes during that class period.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was relieved it was bikeshedding and not blood.. like I first thought it said!

    I do believe stories can be very useful in the classroom and in parenting! I could get a point across a lot better with my kids if I shared and a personal story at times.

    I guess I bikeshed too for I have a list of 35,000 things to do in a day and I find myself writing stories about magical cowbells and cats! ☺

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  5. I was never an educator but I was a student. Thinking back, the classes I liked most were fun not necessarily the ones crammed with the most material where success was just a note-taking contest. The classes I liked were also the ones I think I devoted more time to outside of class. At any rate, what the heck is bikeshedding again? I got distracted. πŸ˜„

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with Pete, those personal stories have a place and sometimes show a connection to, or empathy for, your audience. if we are our own audience, then it’s easy to see how we can fall down the rabbit hole or not get things done, while musing or remembering….
    p.s. like others, I am really wanting to know the origin of the term, bike shedding. when I read your title, I pictured people leaving their old bikes by the side of the road as they outgrew them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. From the title, I pictured “bikeshedding” to be that magical moment when someone decides they are done pedaling and bike a motorcycle. But I will leave that for another digression. I can see that if you get engage in a non-relevant story of length, it may be an inefficient use of time. But I agree with Beth and Pete, that an occasional personal story creates a deeper connection between teacher and student, and often these lived analogies can help flesh out an elusive theory or hypothesis. Sometimes a personal story won’t help them get it, and other times it may be the only way some do get it. Great post, my friend!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I guess I need to make sure my stories are just occasional and relevant. That might be tough to do. And I think students do like to get to know a little bit about their teachers. I do wonder what bikeshedding means, I guess I could look it up… πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess I should have read all of the way through the post I referenced, since it is explained in there:

      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:

      A proposal for a οΏ‘10 million nuclear plant
      A proposal for a οΏ‘350 bike shed
      A proposal for a οΏ‘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.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much for the explanation, Jim. I guess I should have looked for the answer myself but I appreciate your having found and shared it. I wonder why it’s not called coffee budgeting since that’s the most trivial and took the most time.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. While bikeshedding is definitely a thing, I would argue that the example may not be completely the right one. I found that my professors’ storytelling were the vehicle to bring my focus back to the subject of study. Too much of on-topic droning would cause my mind to wander off. I guess the stories need to be relevant and sprinkled in at the right time. I am now off to quantify my decisions for today!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess that’s the key – making sure the stories are relevant. I’m guessing that on occasion, some of my stories may not be. I just need students to let me know when I start going off on a tangent…

      good luck with your decisions!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t want to tempt you to wander off course, but is there a story as to why you’ve secretly changed your blog’s name to Borden’s Balthier? Is it connected to a Final Fantasy of yours? πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Borden’s Bikeshedding doesn’t sound that bad πŸ˜‚ back in my high school I got a PE teacher who loves to tell stories and other stuff, but we love him. He was our favorite because he taught us life.

    That aside I’m guilty of “bikeshedding” A LOT. Gosh, I didn’t know there was a name for too πŸ˜†

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I had a strong feeling when I saw your UT ads posts you had a lot more up your sleeve. The dang virus crisis may be over soon or not, at least I’ll have some more great reading to binge on. Ah this is also a tangent!. On topic, I wish a couple of my night school accounting professors had done a little bikeshedding, the monotony after a long day at work was hard on the concentration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am impressed by anyone who can work all day and then take classes at night. And I know that feeling of a teacher droning on and on; I’ve heard myself speak… πŸ™‚


  12. By the time I read and laugh myself through your comments, Jim I’m sorry to have to say I quite forget the topic of the post however this time I did remember one word which is a plus something do with bikesheds ?..:)

    Liked by 2 people

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