Why We Spend So Much Time at Work on Things that Don't Matter by@shawnpomeara

Why We Spend So Much Time at Work on Things that Don't Matter

The less important something is, the more time is spent on it. Parkinson’s Law of Triviality describes the tendency of organizations to focus on trivial issues at the expense of more complex issues. The law is attributed to British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson, famous for the eponymous law of triviality, which states that work expands to fill the time allocated to it. When a topic is simple and easy to grasp, like a bike shed, we’ll tend to have an opinion on it and thus more about it.
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Shawn O’Meara

Googler, teacher, non-profit guy in a past life. Now I write. Always learning.

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We focus on trivia at the expense of more important issues. Why does this happen and what we can do about it?


I once sat in a meeting and watched four of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with argue fiercely about a comma on slide 4. Said comma, my teammate declared, would imply a pause that would make our sentence clearer. But, another teammate swiftly countered, that a pause could just as easily sap the sentence of its momentum, thereby diminishing its potential to deliver the maximal effect to the reader.


Around and around we went: for 10 minutes, then 15, then 20, until the meeting was nearly over and I realized this was the meeting.


I remember being confused. The kind of confused where you attempt, with quiet desperation, to make eye contact with someone else in the room to confirm that yes, this is happening and no, you are not losing your grip on reality. I was newer to the team, but I couldn’t see how our comma placement would matter much. Maybe our stakeholders were really into grammar?


This meeting has stayed with me, and ever since I’ve wondered why teams and organizations spend so much time and energy on trivial problems. The answer has to do with something called bike-shedding.

Bike-shedding, or Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

Imagine a board of directors meeting with the following agenda:


  1. A request to approve $30 million for a nuclear power plant
  2. A request to approve $250 for a bike shed


The board is made up of average people, and they don’t know a lot about nuclear energy. Mike, the chairman, kicks off the meeting. “Ok, so first up: nuclear power. Anyone have any thoughts on this one?”


Silence. Someone muffles a cough, and others busy themselves with their phones as if something very important has just come up.


Finally, Susan peeps up. “$30 million sounds about right to me…”


“That sounds good,” says Mike, relieved. “Unless anyone has any other thoughts, we’ll move on to the bike shed.”


There is a sudden rustle of excitement. Everyone is eager to talk about the bike shed because, in contrast to nuclear reactors, everyone knows enough to have an opinion about the bike shed.

The discussion turns out to be both spirited and lengthy because people have a lot to say. Karen has strong opinions about whether the nails should come from Home Depot or Lowes and Mike swears by the contractor who helped him build a she-shed for his wife last spring.


This is Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, or bike-shedding, in practice.


The law is attributed to British naval historian and author, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, famous for the eponymous Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time allocated to it. The law of triviality is a lesser-known corollary of that law. It describes the tendency of organizations to focus on trivial issues at the expense of more complex issues. In other words, the less important something is, the more time is spent on it.


When a topic is beyond our understanding, like a nuclear power plant, we won’t even try to form an opinion. Instead, we assume that somebody has checked the details before it got this far. “We’ll trust the experts, right everyone? Now moving on: let’s talk about this shed…”


When a topic is simple and easy to grasp, like a bike shed, we’ll tend to have an opinion on it and thus more to say about it. Even if we don’t, we’ll still say something so that:


  1. We don’t look stupid in front of our peers. After all, what kind of dope wouldn’t have anything to contribute to a conversation about a bike shed?
  2. It looks like we’re contributing. It’s an easy way to say “Look at me! I’m driving decision-making!” Alas, these same people always seem to go missing when the stakes are higher.


The nuclear power plant vs. bike shed example is illustrative. It’s an extreme scenario unlikely to actually happen (hopefully), but maybe you can still relate. There is good news if your team or organization frequently descends into mind-numbing debates about trivial topics: you have options.

What to do about it?

I’ve experienced my fair share of bike-shedding over the years, and I’ve come up with a few ideas on how to respond that I hope will help you stay sane and productive.

1: Prevent bike-shedding with a clear purpose and objective

Ensure that your meetings have a clearly defined purpose or desired outcome. This can be difficult, especially in a fast-paced work environment where it doesn’t feel like there is time to plan, but it’s worth it. A clear purpose is like an anchor that will keep the ship from drifting away into the abyss. Use it to refocus the group when the conversation strays into irrelevancy.

2: Fewer cooks in the kitchen generally leads to a better meal

Big meetings tend to be huge wastes of time. Inevitably, everyone will want to contribute something, and unless everyone in the room has a well-informed opinion (the odds of this being the case are low in my experience), you will be at a high risk of bike-shedding. Be ruthless about limiting the size of the meeting.


If folks in your organization are sensitive about having “visibility” into what was discussed, offer to share a readout or even a recording of the meeting.

If a big meeting is unavoidable, do your best to share both the purpose and relevant information ahead of time to increase the chances that participants will have something of value to say.

3: Delegate trivial matters

Just because the bike shed gets more time than it deserves doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be discussed at all. Try and identify trivial matters ahead of time and delegate them to individuals or smaller groups that are empowered to make decisions without the full group’s approval.

4: Be aware and pick your battles

If you do find yourself in meetings about bike sheds (or commas) while more important issues go undiscussed, my advice would be not to engage more than you have to. Let others expend effort arguing about things that don’t matter. Protect your energy and mental health by resisting the temptation to participate just because everyone else is.


Save your voice for moments when you can contribute meaningfully, or, as Teddy Roosevelt said: “speak softly and carry a big stick.”



Also published here.

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