What is bike shedding? And why you need to stop doing it

 Reading time: About 3 minutes

If you can’t answer the question, “what is bike shedding,” you may be doing it yourself — to your own disadvantage as a writer…

My son phoned me recently to talk about… bike shedding. When he used the word, I was certain I must have misunderstood. He’s a keen cyclist, why on earth would he want to shed his (expensive) bicycle? 

And what did bike shedding have to do with me, in any case? My son knows I’m a dedicated walker who would much rather get 18,000 steps a day walking in my neighbourhood or on my treadmill than spend any time perched on a bicycle in the midst of traffic.

But it turns out bike shedding is actually a reference to the shed in which bicycles can be stored. And, more importantly, the phrase is a metaphor that works like this: 

Imagine a group of people pulled together to discuss implementation of a new nuclear facility. The problems are so big and complex that instead of discussing the risks of nuclear energy, or the costs of the plant, or how to dispose of spent resources, the committee instead focuses on the trivial problem of where to position and what colour to paint the bicycle shed for employees. 

Also known as Parkinson’s law of triviality, bike shedding describes our tendency to devote a disproportionate amount of our time on trivial matters while steering clear of more important ones. 

If you ask yourself, ‘what is bike shedding?’ you might also consider the reasons why people do it: 

  • The trivial issue is easier to understand.
  • The trivial issue takes less time, effort, or money to solve.
  • The important issue requires you to take more responsibility for your decisions.
  • You assume that other people will have already taken care of the more important issue.

While bike shedding is usually linked to business activities, it affects writers, too. You’re bike shedding every time you start writing before you’ve done enough thinking. 

I see this problem hobble writers all the time. Overwhelmed by a deadline (let’s say you need to write an article of 1,200 words for next Tuesday), you’re probably eager to start putting words on the page as quickly as possible. Why? Writing feels like progress! It’s also measurable — you can count how many words you’ve written — and will make you feel as though you’re going to be able to meet your deadline.

Thinking, on the other hand, is so vast that it can’t be measured. It’s both vague and amorphous and you’re never sure when you’re making progress. Also, it’s often uncomfortable. You sit at your desk and your back starts to hurt and you feel bored. You spend hours trying to think your way through the article (or post or chapter) by writing draft after muddy draft. Writing turns into an enormous chore because you haven’t separated the writing process from the thinking process.

Paradoxically, I find the failure to think often affects my academic clients more forcefully than other types of writers. (It’s paradoxical because, after all, what is the basic requirement of academic work? It’s thinking!)

To help deal with this problem, I have a couple of suggestions:

Make a point of getting away from your desk more often. Many writers seem to believe that they can’t think unless they’re sitting at their desk or computer with ready access to all their notes. Instead, the opposite is true: It’s harder to think when you’re stuck at your desk.

Before you try to writego for a walk and think about what your research has told you or reflect on what your interview subjects have said. You might feel uncomfortable about being unable to take notes, but if that really concerns you, take your cell phone along and dictate anything you think you might forget.

Part of the reason walking helps is that when your muscles are moving your brain gets more oxygen. And our brains are oxygen hogs. Even though they weigh only three pounds, which makes them about two percent of our body weight, they require some 20 percent of the body’s oxygen. Sitting at your desk doesn’t get nearly enough oxygen to your brain and that makes thinking a lot harder. And it brings on writing apnea.  

As well, our brains are contrarian beasts. If we instruct them to figure out a problem, it’s as if they go on strike. They think of nothing! That’s why you need to take your ideas for a walk, giving yourself the general intent of thinking about your writing, but not punishing yourself if you don’t. Once you allow your brain to wander, that’s when you’ll start to get interesting ideas. 

I believe so strongly in the value of movement that I work at a treadmill desk so I’m actually able to walk while I write. In fact, I was walking while I wrote this column. Yes, I can walk and type at the same time. But before I had my treadmill, I always made sure I went outside for a walk before writing. There is also great value in being outside. The sights, sounds and smells of nature bolster creativity

Another technique I heartily recommend is mindmapping. I talk about this strategy all the time so I won’t go into great depth, here. I’ll just say that mindmapping is fun and super easy to learn. It’s also the best way to give yourself access to the creative part of your brain. Here is a link to the blog posts and videos I’ve done on mindmapping. Just one final tip: pay particular attention to my suggestion to use a question in the centre of the mindmap. It will make your brainstorming much more focused and specific. 

Thinking is hard work. Perhaps the hardest of any steps in the writing process. Don’t try to escape it by focusing on the colour of your bike shed. Instead, look to make it more fun and enjoyable for yourself with walking and mindmapping. Always be sure to think before you write. 

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. This Thursday, Feb. 24 is the last opportunity to apply for the group starting March 1. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to plan your writing time. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Have you ever delayed your writing process by bike shedding? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 28/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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