Yak shaving is programming lingo for the seemingly endless series of small tasks that have to be completed before the next step in a project can move forward.
You know what it’s like. You start the day with good intentions but get sidetracked and don’t end up doing any of the things you planned to do.
Sometimes this happens because you are too easily distractible, in which case you need to learn to make a To Do List, prioritize everything on it in order of decreasing importance, and make sure you at least get the essential tasks done. This will give you a satisfying sense of achievement at the end of the day.
Sometimes it happens because there are unexpected calls on your attention. This is bound to occur occasionally, but if it happens too often, you may need to learn to say no from time to time so that you can prioritize your own needs. There are genuine exceptions, of course, but people who always put others first are usually avoiding something in their own life that they don’t want to deal with.
What this article is about is another type of sidetracking that most people don’t recognize because they don’t have a name for it. And yet I’m sure after I explain it, you’ll realize it happens to you a lot.
It’s called yak shaving, and is defined as: “Any series of unrelated tasks that have to be completed before you can do the job you first set out to do.”
The key word in this definition is “unrelated.” Everyone understands that when they set out to do a task, there may be a series of related things that need to be done. For example, if you want to renew your passport, you need to have your photo taken, fill in the forms and post the documents to the relevant office or perhaps make a trip to the office in person.
Step 1 is followed by Step 2, which is then followed by Step 3. It’s a linear progression, with each step logically following on from the last.
Yak shaving is not like this at all. How this scenario might look when yak shaving is involved is that you need to get a new passport, but to do that you first need to get a new photo taken, but in order to do that you need to get a haircut, and in order to do that you first need to get your car repaired so that you can drive to town to get it done. And so instead of applying for your passport, you spend the entire day getting your car fixed and feeling frustrated because you never got started on the job you first set out to do. That’s yak shaving!
Made famous by author and blogger Seth Godin a number of years ago, the example he gives on his blog is about the process of wanting to wax his car, but to do this he first has to buy a new hose, but to do that he first needs to borrow his neighbour’s E-Zpass to cross a toll bridge to get to Home Depot, and to do that he first needs to restuff the mooshi pillow his son borrowed from the neighbour. Hence ending up at the zoo shaving a yak!
Hopefully your own examples are not as obscure as this, but they certainly can be. The reason why it’s important to stop, catch yourself in the act and realize you are yak shaving is because this immediately takes you out of feeling like a victim of circumstances and helps to reduce the feelings of frustration that can arise.
Better still, now that you are wise to it, you can spot that it is about to happen, have a little chuckle to yourself about it and either decide to continue with good-natured enthusiasm or leave that particular yak unshaven for now and find another way to accomplish your goal (perhaps get a friend to give you a lift, or catch a bus or taxi instead).
A good sense of humour is definitely an asset when it comes to yak shaving, so next time this happens to you, see the hilarious side of it, smile to yourself and make a conscious decision to shave the beast or not. Be aware too, that whole herds of yaks can emerge when there’s clutter clearing to be done, so be particularly alert for them at those times.
What small tasks do you hate doing? How do you avoid unnecessary tasks so that you can focus on getting more from life after 60? How do you recognize when you are stuck in yak shaving? What has helped you to laugh at yourself and move forward? Please share your stories about yak shaving in the comments.