Feeling Unproductive? This Brain Bias Could Be to Blame

Bikeshedding is a very sneaky tool your brain uses to keep you stuck, and it’s very common during times of uncertainty.

Our brains love the status quo because the subconscious (which makes 95 percent of all decisions) bases its choices on rules of thumb for what has worked in the past. 

This desire to keep things predictable means when we are in a state of extreme change (like the coronavirus pandemic) it will use everything in its arsenal to keep things as normal as it can. One of the biases it uses is called bikeshedding (or Parkinson’s law of triviality), and it is particularly effective at keeping you in an unproductive loop. 

Here’s how it works

Parkinson’s law of triviality has two laws. The first is that, in the same way a goldfish will grow to fit the size of its bowl, a task will take up as much time as it is allowed. For all of us out there who have said we “work best under a deadline,” this is why. As long as the time to complete something is unlimited, it is more difficult to complete. 

Parkinson’s second law states that when given a big, important task, people are more likely to get hung up on something trivial that takes up a disproportionate amount of time. It got the name “bikeshedding” from Parkinson’s observation of a group who were tasked with creating the plan for a nuclear power plant, and the committee spent a huge amount of time focusing on the design of the bike shed (instead of the full plant). 

We all do this constantly — and more so during this pandemic, when the brain is overwhelmed by change. Here are some examples of how this might be impacting your work: 

  • You need to increase your social media presence by doing live videos and stories, but feel you can’t start them until you have researched the experts (and watched a lot of content).
  • You know that your opt-in needs to be updated to fit current needs, but can’t decide if it should be a quiz or a template or a how-to sheet, so you spend days or weeks letting that mull around in your head, not taking action. 
  • You want to do a webinar to engage clients, but before creating the content feel the need to research every possible platform and scheduling software to make sure it will be perfect whenever you’re ready to launch. 

The biggest problem with bikeshedding is that your brain is really good at making you think that thing you are stuck on is incredibly important and deserves all the time you can possibly devote to it. Your brain will put up roadblocks and replay worst-case scenarios in your mind to ensure you never get to the real issue (the new, important thing that makes your brain scared because it doesn’t have a set rule for it yet). 

Here’s the truth about each of those scenarios above: 

  • The best way to gain an audience on social media and be more comfortable in the space is to try. The great thing about Instagram Stories is they disappear in 24 hours, and you can always delete them. Watching hours of content from others will only make you feel inadequate and keep you stuck. 
  • Any opt-in can work. The format is not as important as the “win” you promise and deliver. Determining what problem people want answered enough to provide their email address is much more important than the exact type of freebie. 
  • All the webinar platforms work. If people care enough about the content, they will not be turned off by the platform it is created in.

How to spot (and avoid) bikeshedding

The first thing you need to do is identify the goal and why it matters. You can only know if something is a distraction if you know what it is distracting you from.

To gain traction toward your goals, you need to define them. 

When you have an item on your to-do list that keeps getting moved to tomorrow, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Will this decision matter five months (or five years) from now? 
  • What is the consequence if I choose “wrong”? 
  • Is this problem helping me reach my big goal or distracting me from it?

If the decision will not matter in a few months and it is easy to change (i.e., if you hate the webinar platform you can try a new one), then it is likely a bikeshedding attempt and your best bet is to make a choice and move forward.

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