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The Bike-Shed Effect

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We all know what bike-sheds are, but most people will not recognize the name Cyril Northcote Parkinson, unless you're really into naval history or public administration. However, you probably are familiar with Parkinson's Law which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

This law is ever so true. Centuries earlier, the French scholar Blaise Pascal addressed this very notion that more time shouldn’t lead to the production of more product. Many people have been attributed to the very same idea, from Mark Twain to Bill Clinton. The quote is, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

Thus, we can claim that Pascal and Parkinson were referring to the same phenomenon, that more time should be used to clarify and strip away that which is not needed. In Einstein’s words, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

As important a principle as it is, Parkinson’s Law is NOT the topic of this article. Instead, we will focus on another argument of his, that organizations tend to pay too much attention to the trivial details. This became known as Parkinson’s law of triviality or the bike-shed effect, otherwise known as bikeshedding.

Below is my own summary of the bike-shed anecdote.

A committee gathers for a three hour meeting to discuss the development of a new nuclear energy plant. The agenda items are as follows:

  • Design and layout of the reactors.

  • A bike-shed for the employees.

  • Costs of refreshments for the safety committee.

The three hour meeting ends up being a 10 minute discussion on the highly-complex reactor, with little regard to the fuel type, waste disposal, emergency procedures and cooling processes, while the remaining 2hrs50min is spent debating bike-shed colors, racks, types of bikes that employees ride and every refreshment that could possibly be offered by a number of catering companies.

Now, given all that has happened in Japan with nuclear reactors, I’m quite certain that a present –day committee would be spending much more time discussing the nuclear power plant design. But again, if this is what you have focused on, you’re missing the point.

The idea is that we will focus on the little things that we do know, failing to pay heed to the larger picture, the looming problem that exists which is harder to understand.

In fitness and nutrition, the trivial arguments abound, while the larger, less clear topics are left untouched.

The common questions are:

How many grams of green tea extract should I ingest for optimal weight loss?

What sort of knee wraps should I use to get my max squat up?

How long should I roll on my IT band to get rid of my IT band syndrome?

How can I use the TRX to build my back muscles to do pull-ups?

When the better questions should be:

What macronutrient ratios lead to optimal weight loss?

What sort of progression should I use to get my max squat up?

How can I improve my running form to stop IT band syndrome from occurring?

The hard part is that we often aren’t aware of the trivial nature of certain things. The key is to focus on the big picture and question why you are doing certain things.

Perhaps your nutrition has progressed to such an extent that you need to start focussing on which gut bacteria you need to develop and how many milligrams of Vitamin D you should take during the winter months. But maybe you need to start with minimizing your sugar intake, eat more vegetables and stop drinking so much.

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