The Bike Shed Effect

Blue Bike Shed

(Image: nimeus)

Have you heard of the bike shed effect?

The bike shed story tells of a management committee’s decision to approve a nuclear power plant, which it does so with little argument or deliberation. The story contrasts this with another decision on choosing the color of the bike shed where the management gets into a nit-picking debate and expends far more time and energy than on the nuclear power plant decision.

Karl Fogel, a renowned engineer on the topic, describes the issue as “the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic that has been around for a long time.” (From The Express Tribute)

The bike shed effect (also known as the Parkinson’s Law of Triviality) is an issue commonly known in corporate and consulting circles. While the idea originated from the corporate world, it is relevant in personal development too.

Examples of the Bike Shed Effect In Action

Consider the following situations:

  1. You are out shopping for a bag. You can’t, for the life of you, decide whether to get the black or brown bag. You stress out over it and decide not to get either one. You then spend the rest of the week thinking about this before returning to the shop to get the item.
  2. You have a dream to start a business. Everyone reacts negatively and advises you against it, saying that you will fail and starting a business is hard, even though you didn’t ask for any advice. Shocked, you decide not to pursue your passion as you are overwhelmed by everyone’s advice.
  3. You decide to switch to veganism to improve your health and for non-cruelty reasons. You begin to draw a lot of attention and criticism to your lifestyle, namely from friends, parents, colleagues, and even your doctor — even though they know nothing about veganism.

In each of the scenarios, you see the bike shed effect kicking in.

  1. Picking a color is so easy, yet so subjective, that you’re afraid to make the wrong choice. There are no frameworks or data to help you make this choice. So you ponder excessively over the decision, giving it more time than you should. 
  2. Working in a day job or starting your business — this is something that people have either pondered over at some point, or read or heard about from others. So everyone feels that they have something to say about the matter, even if they really have no experience in it.
  3. Because people eat every day, they feel like they are an expert on diet and nutrition, even if they know nothing about the diet you are pursuing. So they can give very forceful and passionate opinions about it even if they have never read up about it, or even tried it for an extended period of time before.

Personal Development Lessons from Bike Shed Effect

The bike shed effect actually teaches us three things.

Firstly, the simplest problems can take up a lot of our time. Why? Because they are so simple that we are afraid that we may miss something. They are also so simple that we still have excess energy left after making a decision, so we obsess over the problem and spend all our time picking a perfect choice instead. Simple decisions also tend to rely on our subjective judgment rather than an objective assessment, and we may not have as much faith in our subjective assessment since we’re not used to making decisions based on intuition alone (vs. numbers and hard data).

Secondly, everyone and their grandmother can give you advice on something. The amount of unsolicited and “free” advice you get increases exponentially when the topic is highly relevant to their lives. Meaning, if you want to quit your job and set up a new business, you will get staunch and forceful advice from 20 different people working in day jobs. That’s because they have probably contemplated this decision before and decided not to do it out of fear of what they will “lose” from not having a day job. Never mind that they have never set up their businesses before and know nothing about becoming an entrepreneur.

Thirdly, situations where subjective judgment is involved tend to invite the most conflict. Because there are no qualifications required to give judgment. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is entitled to their opinion. There is also no way to prove or disprove anything because a judgment is a judgment — there is no right or wrong.

Reflect on your life today and you will easily see the bike shed effect at work.

For example, you worry too much about a simple purchase decision (like the scenario above on choosing colors). You spend a lengthy amount of time along the supermarket aisles, pondering whether to buy whole wheat bread or multi-grain bread. You set up a new business and a lot of people try to tell you what you should do, but none of them have experience setting up a successful business. You stress out over whether to go to Country A or B for your vacation (or even between choosing Hotel A or B). You argue with your partner on whether to leave the toilet seat up or down. You argue with your roommates over whether to have the heater on or off.

In the scenarios above, the common problem is that there is too much noise. Too many thoughts, too many opinions, and too much energy expended on things that don’t even matter in the first place. While they may seem important initially, fast forward a week, month, year — these discussions lose their significance.

How to Avoid the Bike Shed Effect

Hence, you want to avoid the bike shed effect in your life, or if possible, prevent it. How can you do that?

  1. There is no need to follow the feedback/advice from everyone. Everyone can give an opinion on what to do with your bike shed but the value of the opinion differs from person to person, depending on their knowledge and experience. Hear them out, listen to what they have to say, but you don’t need to follow what people tell you. Assess the source first and decide if this is a source you want to listen to. Day 16’s task of Be a Better Me in 30 Days on Seek Advice From Someone gets you to approach at least 3 people (with experience in your goal) for valuable advice.
  2. Go for the color you want. In the bike shed story, everyone spends a lot of time debating over which color to choose for the shed. Reflecting on your life, are there people telling you what color you should paint your bike shed? It’s nice to hear their opinions, but the bike shed is yours and you are the one who will be living with it. What color do YOU want to paint YOUR bike shed? That’s something you have to ask yourself.
  3. Ask yourself how significant this is. Does the color of the bike shed really matter, honestly? Is the thing you’re pondering over even significant to begin with? Significant being, (a) Will it impact you 1, 3, 5 years from now? (b) Is it an irreversible change? (c) What’s at stake here, really? If it’s a “no” for (a) and (b), and if there is nothing major at stake, then it’s not all that significant and you shouldn’t be spending your energy on this in the first place.
  4. Use objective assessment tools. Assuming the problem is significant enough for you to spend time on it, objectifying it may help with the decision-making process. Since subjective judgment tends to be, well, subjective and hence inconclusive, use objective criteria to bring light to the situation.

    For example, if you’re considering whether to quit your job now or wait it out for a few more months, objectify the problem. Identify your objectives, nail down the pros and cons of each option, and then pick the choice that fits your objectives the best. If you are not sure which location to set up your new restaurant, then do an analysis of the human traffic, the cost, and the potential returns for each location, and see which is more profitable. If you’re not sure which stock to buy for your investment, then evaluate the list of stocks, analyze their past trends, and understand the performance of each company, then make your decision. Every scenario, no matter how subjective it may seem, can be easily objectified when you pinpoint the criteria you are looking for.

  5. Don’t talk about something unless you are ready to hear others’ opinions about it. Everyone likes to comment on a bike shed scenario. Think about it as a can of worms that will get out of control once you open it. By talking about it, you are essentially issuing an open ticket for others to give their criticism. Naysayers tend to latch tightly to these opportunities to air their negativity. So unless you are ready to listen to what others have to tell you, don’t talk about it at all.
  6. Use the 80/20 list to identify important tasks over unimportant bike shed problems. Many of us have a tendency to occupy ourselves with unimportant bike shed problems because they are easy. However, they are also pointless and a waste of time. The 80/20 list is a high-performance to-do list covered in Day 8 of Live a Better Life in 30 Days on creating your 80/20 list. Basically, you segment your tasks into 2 categories: 20% high-impact tasks and 80% low-impact tasks. Then, you allocate a disproportionate amount of time to the 20% high-impact tasks and push back the 80% low-impact tasks by either doing them quickly, delegating, outsourcing, or ditching them altogether. This way, you don’t let yourself get sucked into the unimportant bike shed problems.
  7. Pick your battles. There are a million bike shed problems to mull over, but you want to be choiceful over what you spend your time on. People may have agitated opinions about something, but if it’s trivial to you, then let it go — you don’t need to “win” the argument for the sake of winning. Spend your energy on the things that matter. (See #2.)
  8. Pick one and go. If the decision doesn’t matter in the long run, then just pick any option and go. For you to feel conflicted over the choices, that usually means that the choices are likely pretty good, and it’s not going to matter much which one you pick. So do a quick assessment, then pick one and make the best out of it.

Do you see the bike shed effect at work in your life? What kind of situations do you see it at work? How can you apply the 8 tips above?

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