Putting the little things in their place: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
Even when we know we’re doing it, we can’t seem to peel away from the trivial, to focus on what is vital. I’m now trying a new way out, Assisi says.
It’s that time of year when I begin my mid-term appraisal of myself.
The idea isn’t original. The import of this exercise has been discussed by a number of people in my life whom I admire.
It takes some effort and it can be taxing, but I believe that the payoffs are high — if one can be brutally honest with oneself. Here we go.
By now, I know that I will not rake in the kind of monies that I had assumed I might this year. I have fallen short on my fitness goals (though I can still make up the lost ground there). I can see clearly that the time invested in the personal relationships I cherish is far too low.
On doing a post-mortem of why I have fallen short, data from my diary indicates that I am still spending far too much time on the trivial, and it is costing me on all these fronts. I am doomscrolling on social media, binge-watching mindless TV shows, spending time with people I would be better off without.
I’ve tried numerous hacks in attempts to fix this; downloaded apps, set short-term goals, drawn up charts that offer grim reminders of how little time is left (regular readers will remember the columns I’ve written about these too). All of which has helped, but in just one respect. Now, when I am engaging with the trivial, a voice in my head tells me that I am.
Do I stop, step away and use that time better? I do not. Why?
As it turns out, there’s a name for this phenomenon. It’s called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, nicknamed the Bike-Shed Effect. The British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson coined the term in the 1950s.
He had a reputation for being both scholarly and bitterly funny, so the story of how he came up with the Law is an interesting one too. He was once witness to the machinations of a committee tasked with approving the construction of a nuclear power plant. There were three items on the agenda of that meeting: Discuss the building of a £10 million nuclear plant; Clear a plan for a £350 bike-shed next to it; Deliberate on an annual £21 coffee budget.
The committee quickly approved the project, quickly cleared the coffee budget, and spent hours arguing about the bike shed.
Why did it play out like this? Most people on the committee did not know much about the intricacies of a nuclear power plant, so there was no value they felt they could add, Parkinson later posited, in his book Parkinson’s Law (1957). The coffee was a straightforward question and was dispensed with as such.
But everyone felt qualified to pitch in with suggestions for the bike shed. What colour would it be, what size, why not another colour or another size? No one wanted their voice left out, and everyone felt safe venturing opinions and suggestions.
The Bike-Shed Effect is real, and has a significant impact on our lives. In the longer run, focussing on the trivial instead of on what matters means that we lose sight of the big picture, and make bad decisions.
How does one avoid the Bike-Shed Effect? I approached Delhi-based leadership coach Vivek Singh, and he responded with a question that was illuminating: How important is that to you?
If something is acknowledged as being vital, we will work to make it happen, he argued. That compelled some hard admissions, and I have decided to take a few concrete steps.
The first is to identify my top priorities for each day. I believe this will help me stay focused. The second is to set inviolable deadlines, to prevent a habit of overthinking from acting as a timesink. What if, in my haste to make a decision or complete a task, I make the wrong decision?
“Of the, say, five vital decisions you make on a given day, most won’t be wrong. You’ll progress, get better at deciding, and will have taken a step forward,” was Singh’s advice. It makes sense to me.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)