What is Shaving the Yak, and How To Avoid It?

“Yak shaving” (or “shaving a yak”) is a term coined by Carlin Vieri, an MIT Ph.D., in the ’90s after watching an episode of “The Ren & Stimpy Show”.


Yak shaving is referred to a task that you perform in order to do some other task that needs to be done in order to do some other task and so on. In other words, the task that could have been avoided, is completely unnecessary and is stopping you from doing the main task is considered as Shaving The Yak.

Here is an example from Seth Godin’s blog:

“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.” [i]

And after a while, you realize that you are at a zoo, shaving a yak when all you needed was to wax the car.

This phenomenon isn’t just for a particular industry, it happens in every industry possible. It can be software development, graphic designer, car mechanic, chef, etc, the list goes on.

The effect of Yak shaving hits differently to different people. One can be diverted from the main task for days while another person might just be distracted for a few minutes.

Can we avoid it or even reduce it?

The good news is yes, it is possible to reduce this effect to a negligible factor by training your brain and habits in a certain way. Here are a few tips that you can use to avoid getting stuck doing Yak Shaving.


  1. Have a set Plan of Action
    Try to create a short roadmap of the task that you are about to do, but be careful as this task can itself end up being the Yak you start shaving.


  1. Set Periodic Checkpoints Checkpoints will make you stop and analyze if you are still on the right track that you planned.


  1. Set Small Goals Small goals act like checkpoints for you to have a timely record. They will also help you stay motivated and encouraged for a much longer duration.


  1. Have a Better Working Environment Having unnecessary distractions around you can also keep you off track too. So keeping the workstation clean and organized will most likely help you stay on track and prevent you from getting distracted.


  1. Understanding the task you are trying to solve It’ll get easier to be on track when you know about the problem/task in detail. You’ll be aware of possible distractions and issues that could come up and you can plan for them accordingly.


So what to do?

Well, the moment you realize that you are moving towards a path of Yak Shaving, turn around. It’s better to get things done now than try to perfect them later.


[i] https://seths.blog/2005/03/dont_shave_that/

[ii] https://americanexpress.io/yak-shaving/

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