In support of Yak Shaving

Yak shaving is heralded as pretty much “the devil” of trying to get things done.  The anti-yak shaving movement will identify this problem as being one of focus.  The moral of the story they give is “don’t yak shave“.

Originally posted in MIT’s media lab with the description:

Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you’re working on.

But I prefer the story by Seth Godin:

“I want to wax the car today.”

“Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I’ll need to buy a new one at Home Depot.”

“But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls.”

“But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor’s EZPass…”

“Bob won’t lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though.”

“And we haven’t returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it.”

And the next thing you know, you’re at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.

I disagree with the conclusion to not yak shave, and here’s why.


The problem here is that you didn’t wax the car because you spent all day shaving yaks (see also “there’s a hole in my bucket“).  In a startup that translates to not doing the tasks that get customers – the tasks which get money and actually make an impact, say “playing with the UI”.  It’s easy to see why such anti-yak shaving sentiment would exist (see also: bikeshedding, rearranging deck chairs on the titanic, hamming questions).  You can spend a whole day doing a whole lot of nothings; getting to bed and wonder what you actually accomplished that day (hint: a whole lot of running in circles).

Or at least that’s what it looks like on the surface.  But let’s look a little deeper into what the problems and barriers are in the classic scenario.

  1. Want to wax car
  2. Broken hose
  3. Hardware store is far away
  4. No EZpass for tolls
  5. Neighbour won’t lend the pass until pillow is returned
  6. Broken mooshi pillow
  7. Have to go get yak hair.

So it’s not just one problem, but a series of problems that come up in a sequence.  Hopefully by the end of the list you can turn around and walk all the way straight back up the list.  But in the real world there might even be other problems like, you get to the hardware store and realise you don’t know the hose-fitting size of your house so you need to call someone at home to check…

On closer inspection; this sort of behaviour is not like bikeshedding at all.  Nor is it doing insignificant things under the guise of “real work”.  Instead this is about tackling what stands in the way of your problem.  In problem solving in the real world, Don’t yak shave” is not what I have found to be the solution.  In experiencing this the first time it feels like a sequence of discoveries.  For example, first you discover the hose.  Then you discover the EZpass problem, then you discover the pillow problem, at which point you are pretty sick of trying to wax your car and want a break or to work on something else.


I propose that classic yak shaving presents a very important sign that things are broken.  In order to get to the classic scenario we had to

  1. have borrowed a pillow from our neighbour,
  2. have it break and not get fixed,
  3. not own our own EZpass,
  4. live far from a hardware store,
  5. have a broken hose, and
  6. want to wax a car.

Each open problem in this scenario presents an open problem or an open loop.  Yak shaving presents a warning sign that you are in a Swiss-cheese model scenario of problems.  This might sound familiar because it’s the kind of situation which leads to the Fukushima reactor meltdown.  It’s the kind of scenario when you try to work out why the handyman fell off your roof and died, and you notice that:

  1. he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
  2. He wasn’t tied on safely
  3. His ladder wasn’t tied down
  4. It was a windy day
  5. His harness was old and worn out
  6. He was on his phone while on the roof…

And you realise that any five of those things could have gone wrong and not caused much of a problem.  But you put all six of those mistakes together and line the wind up in just the right way, everything comes tumbling down.


Yak shaving is a sign that you are living with problems waiting to crash down.  And living in a situation where you don’t have time to do the sort of maintenance that would fix things and keep smoulders from bursting into flames.

I can almost guaranteed that when your house of cards all come falling down, it happens on a day that you don’t have the spare time to waste on ridiculous seeming problems.


What should you do if you are in this situation?

Yak shave.  The best thing you can do if half your projects are unfinished and spread around the room is to tidy up.  Get things together; organise things, initiate the GTD system (or any system), wrap up old bugs, close the open loops (advice from GTD) and as many times as you can; YAK SHAVE for all you are worth!

If something is broken, and you are living with it, that’s not acceptable.  You need a system in your life to regularly get around to fixing it.  Notepads, reviews, list keeping, set time aside for doing it and plan to fix things.

So I say, Yak Shave, as much, as long, and as many times as it takes till there are no more yaks to shave.


Something not mentioned often enough is a late addition to my list of common human goals.

Improve the tools available – sharpen the axe, write a new app that can do the thing you want, invent systems that work for you.  prepare for when the rest of the work comes along.

People often ask how you can plan for lucky breaks in your life.  How do you cultivate opportunity?  I can tell you right here and now, this is how.

Keep a toolkit at the ready, a work-space (post coming soon) at the ready, spare time for things to go wrong and things to go right.  And don’t forget to play.  Why do we sharpen the axe?  Clear Epistemics, or clear Instrumental Rationality.  Be prepared for the situation that will come up.

Yak Shave like your life depends on it.  Because your life might one day depend on it.  Your creativity certainly does.


Meta: this took 2.5 hrs to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/oql/in_support_of_yak_shaving/

Liked it? Take a second to support E on Patreon!
This entry was posted in life maintenance, self-improvement, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply