Graeme Newell

Bikeshedding Effect

In March of 2020 the perennial institution of the “business meeting” experienced a sudden, once-in-a-lifetime paradigm shift. Most of us were begrudgingly transitioned from in-person meetings to Zoom meetings. 

Curiously, a strange perk emerged. People reported that meetings started getting shorter. The teams got to the point faster, and productivity improved.

My feeling is this productivity increase was primarily caused by the Zoom timer. The free version of Zoom limits meeting times to 45 minutes. The participants reported that the little on-screen clock kept them focused on important agenda items. Watching those minutes relentlessly tick down inspired them to table minutia and to avoid needless discussion. 

That little Zoom timer powerfully demonstrated the insidious lure of the bikeshedding effect. We learned we could avoid this cognitive bias if we simply started each meeting with a priority list.

We’ve all experienced the bikeshedding effect, but for me, it’s been a particular tormenter. Whenever I have a big presentation, the bikeshedding effect torpedos my productivity. I start tweaking graphics or wasting time with some other fun but unimportant part of the project.

So a few years back, I decided to go cold turkey on my bikeshedding addiction. A deadline for a major project was still weeks away, but I purposefully kept myself from starting it until I was seven days from the deadline. I’ll admit, it was nerve racking, but my back-against-the-wall plan taught me a lot about my misguided workflow. I got a full week of time back because I eradicated all my low-priority dillydallying.

That experience taught me that my major projects should always begin with a detailed outline and a carefully crafted workflow. I know my productivity will wane as the project progresses. It’s really difficult, but I commit myself to doing the arduous and important tasks first, then I reward myself with lighter tasks later down the line. I basically flipped my unproductive bikeshedding workflow.