Yak Shaving, Or Wooly Distractions

Yak Shaving, Or Wooly Distractions
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This post was previously published. It has been updated.

It starts out so innocently. You have a project to crank a widget. But you realize that you have to oil the mechanism before you crank the widget. And then you find you have to go to the store for oil. And before that you have to put gas in the car. Before you know it, you’re standing with a razor and shaving cream and a very clean-shaven yak in front of you.

You, my friend, have just experienced yak shaving.

I can go down a rabbit hole or get distracted (squirrel!) or get ready to shave a yak faster than just about anyone I know. It is incredibly easy to do, and most often I am not aware of it until I can barely recall the original task I was trying to accomplish.

What is Yak Shaving?

Yak shaving is a programming term that refers to the endless little tasks that must be done before you can get to the task at hand. The tasks themselves may have absolutely no direct relation to the end task, but at some point have seemed necessary in the chain of events.

Examples of Yak Shaving

Two examples of yak shaving:

Internet Research

You can’t remember the name of the law of a certain percent of the clients generating most of the revenue, and you need it for the slide deck you are creating. You go out to Google, where you type in a search, and your browser informs you that you need to update.

So you update your browser, and when it restarts, it tells you that one of your most-used extensions is no longer compatible. So you go looking for a replacement.

You find something that you think will work and download it, but then your virus checker squawks so you quickly shut down your browser and run a virus scan. It recommends that you restart your computer and do a fresh scan.

But when you go to reboot, Windows informs you that you have to install updates and then can either restart or shut down. You choose to install and restart, and the update process takes 45 minutes.

By the time your machine is rebooted and virus-checked, three hours have passed, and you still don’t have the name of the law. Yak shaving complete.

But First I Need To …

You notice that the kitchen has a burned out light. You go to the closet where you keep the light bulbs, but but notice that the shelf has broken. That means a trip to the hardware store.

So you get in your car and realize that the tire pressure indicator is on, so you make a trip to the gas station. The air pump doesn’t have a tire pressure display, and you don’t have one, so you drive over to the auto parts store to get one.

On the way you get splashed with a salty puddle and decide to take your car through the wash.

As you are going through the wash your spouse calls. “I thought you were going to change a light bulb?” to which you reply, “That’s what I’m doing!”

In the car wash, apparently. Yak shaved.

A Recent True Story

Our test server at my client has been misbehaving. It started after a piece of less-than-well-thought-out-code was moved and tested. The discussion went: “that’s the server we were working with the settings on with Microsoft. We need to rebuild the database server. But if we rebuild that, we will have to rebuild the analytics server. And that means that we’ll need to reconfigure the memory to handle the load that might be coming.”

The real solution? Remove the faulty code and restart the machine.

Yak Shaving And The 2 Minute Rule

One of the reasons that I don’t like David Allen‘s* 2 minute rule (“If it takes less than 2 minutes, do it now”) is because it can quickly lead to a bout of yak shaving. You have a task that takes less than 2 minutes, but it spawns another task that takes less than 2 minutes, and soon a half hour has passed and you have done a lot of things in under 2 minutes each, but you’ve derailed your original plan and none of those things was really important. They just took under 2 minutes each..

That’s not to say the 2 minute rule is bad; I just think it leads to yak shaving very, very quickly.

Identifying When You Are About To Shave The Yak

The fun part about yak shaving is that each step appears logical and inevitable at the time. But it doesn’t have to be. Yak shaving is not inevitable, as long as you realize when you are about to go down that path.

Always Be Aware Of Your ROI

ROI. Good old Return On Investment. It applies to time as well as money. One of the best ways to avoid yak shaving is to be aware of whether or not the solution is the best return on your time investment.

It may seem logical to end up at the car wash when you started out changing a light bulb, but the questions should always remain “is this task necessary to accomplish what I set out to do?” Or “is this the best use of my time when I am trying to accomplish X?”

By looking at each task in light of what you are trying to do, you can avoid the yaks altogether. In the case of the research, you make a note to update your browser later. Or at least put off finding the replacement extension until later.

In the case of the light bulb, you make a note to fix the shelf at some future time. Since the shelf is in the closet wasn’t noticed until just that moment, and there is no danger to anyone from it, you can add it to your task list to take care of later.

Identifying Other Solutions

The second way to identify when you are about to start a path to the yak is to notice if your solution is the only one.

Sometimes we latch on to how to do something right, thinking that it has to be that way. But often times there is a more direct method to getting to where you need to be – a “right for now” solution.

A recent example at work: one of the executives needed a report in order to make some decisions that would take effect in the new year. The catch was she wanted to do what-if analysis, and we don’t have the tools she would need for that. We went back and forth for about an hour, trying to figure out a way to get her a license, approaching the yak several times in the process. But rather than the “right” solution that would be applicable forever, I finally went with the “right for now” solution which involved a static data set in a spreadsheet but gave her the ability to look at the data and cut it up to her heart’s content. No, it’s not a permanent solution. No, it was not elegant. But it got her what she needed fast. And the right solution will come with the licensing deal in the new year.

Too many times yak shaving comes about from wanting to do something right or to find a permanent solution. Often, though, a permanent solution isn’t needed. Or the elegant solution isn’t needed. Sometimes it needs to be blunt force and temporary.

In Conclusion

Don’t shave that yak. Leave the poor beast with his fur.

Instead, be aware of when your efforts are no longer worth the return on investment, and look for any solution that may work, even if it is blunt force and temporary.

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