Bike-shedding: When trivial tasks ruin your day

Let’s paint a picture of your morning.

You wake up. Open one eye. Then the other.

The timer starts.

How many seconds until you grab your phone?

The data ain’t pretty. 31% of workers under age 40 are on their work email – within less than a minute of waking up. (Per research from Superhuman.)

But that’s being generous. I posed the question to my fellow RadReaders and here’s what you said:

“I usually still have one eye closed.”

“I picked up my phone about 9 seconds after waking up and started playing chess in bed.”

“Before Iโ€™ve opened my eyes fully since itโ€™s my alarm clock.”

And kudos to the person who just replied:


Now the average response was between 1 and 60 seconds. But here’s something wild, when it comes to digital hygiene, this is far from the most egregious behavior.

What’s the most egregious?

Hint: It involves emails.

It involves folders.

And it involves putting said emails into said folders.

Here’s RadReader Adam Grant summarizing the findings of a research paper titled Am I wasting my time organizing email?

The answer is a resounding yes. Organizing emails into folders takes on average 67 hours a year. And makes it harder to find your messages.

Yet why do we invest 67 hours in organizing our email? The Law of triviality. Aka Bikeshedding.

What is bike-shedding?

In 1957, the British Naval Historian C. Northcote Parkinson coined the Law of Triviality. It argued that “people within an organization typically give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” The law was colloquially renamed the bike-shedding effect in the context of a ficititous example of a committee deliberating on building an atomic reactor.

This committee deliberates on the reactor for 30 minutes.

They then have one other matter to tend to, installing a new bike shed.

It turns out, that when it comes to the bike shed, everyone has an opinion.

And the committee spends 90 minutes deliberating on the bike shed, its placement, color and the number of bikes it can hold. It turns out that this discrepancy comes from the complexity at hand:

A reactor is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those who work on it understand it.

However, everyone can visualize the bicycle shed. Since it feels so familiar,

Planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to implement their own proposal and demonstrate personal contribution. Problems arise when everyone involved argues about the details.

Now the law of triviality is typically applies to committee-based decisions. After all, we’ve all been in that meeting whose sole purpose is to decide if we need yet another meeting in order to make a decision:


But let’s go back to our organizing-emails-into-folders conundrum. This is the ultimate low value (i.e. $10 Work). Bike-shedding is so appealing because it’s the path of least resistance. And thus the path of lowest value:

Our daily lives are filled with other examples of favoring trivial tasks over things that actually move the needle. Here’s this struggle coming directly from a fellow RadReader:

I’ve forgotten how to think bigger. Instead I just make smaller things better.

Bike-shedding hits every element of our lives. It warps our to-do lists and distracts us from our personal goals. It leads us down useless rabbit holes and consumes our precious energy leading to burnout. Here are two examples of bike-shedding:

Example 1: Starting a blog

I’m constantly approached by aspiring bloggers who would like to take a page out of RadReads’ playbook. They are smart, well-intentioned and hungry. Then something strange happens.

They spend hours researching where to host their blog. The spend days coming up with a name and then hiring a Fivvr to come up with a logo. Then they spend weeks setting up an elaborate system to move their Kindle Highlights into their Notion workspaces. Then they take a 6 week online course.

6 months later, they haven’t hit publish once. The trivial details are too seductive and give the false sense of progress. But they’re literally still at Square 1 (and out a couple thousand dollars).

Example 2: Getting better sleep

We’ve all gotten the memo. High-quality (and regular) sleep is the path to more energy, joy – and yes – even productivity. But that’s when bike-shedding kicks in. Instead of tackling the guilty culprits (screen time, work boundaries, caffeine and alcohol) we go straight to the Shiny New Toys. We research thousand-dollar Chili Pads and $400 Oura Rings. We know the answer to our sleep issues, yet we “bike-shed away” the solution on trivial toys that won’t ultimately move the needle.

Why do we bikeshed?

Why do we engage in such trivial and self-defeating behavior?

First, we gravitate towards tasks with dopamine. Like the burst of energy that comes from a double-fudge cookie, this dopamine feels great in the moment. But the high is short-lived and we immediately regret it. Conversely, complex and high-value tasks are hard to define and have uncertain pay-offs. Our lizard brains can’t stomach the delayed gratification.

Next, we lack an objective framework to assess the significance of tasks. Without a true undertanding of the impact from our activities, we’re shooting blanks. Any value-based framework, whether it’s the Eisenhower Matrix, $10K Work or more complex tools for radical prioritization can overcome this blind spot.

Finally, trivial tasks are disconnected from your WHY. It takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness to truly understand what motivates you and what fuels your zest-for-life. With an unclear WHY, we grasp at straws. $10 work and trivial tasks give the false illusion that we’re making progress towards this (unspecified) goal. But once you nail that WHY and find yourself in alignment, you’ll watch as the trivial tasks – and the bike sheds – melt away.

Bike-shedding is the ultimate $10 Work. Not only do we have the anti-dote to bike-shedding, we’ve got a simple and reliable framework so that you can do work that moves the needle. Join us for our the 10th cohort of Supercharge Your Productivity, but hurry we cap enrollment at 200 students and our next cohort won’t be until Q4.

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