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Yak Shaving: How to Stop Procrastinating

Humans are yak shaving creatures. We can’t help ourselves. It’s what we end up doing when procrastination strikes in one of its most insidious forms. Thankfully, we seem to spend an equal amount of energy on overcoming procrastination. Let’s first get our yak shaving essentials in order before looking into ways to outsmart the furry creature.

What Is Yak Shaving?

Yak Shaving is a pesky little form of procrastination. The term was coined in the 1990s by MIT software engineer Carlin Vieri. He was inspired by the classic cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show of the same era. The episode ‘The Boy Who Cried Rat’ introduced Yak Shaving Day, a holiday quite similar to Christmas, on which people wait for the shaven yak to float by in its enchanted canoe. Because it makes sense.

In terms of procrastination, what Vieri found was that in order to avoid progressing toward a big goal right in front of us, we end up doing smaller, less relevant tasks. We lose ourselves in increasingly trivial activities until we eventually find ourselves shaving the aforementioned yak. An example is probably in order. Let’s say we’re aspiring writers and our goal is to finish that one rough essay draft that hasn’t gone anywhere so far. Pressure is mounting, so we power up our gear. Here’s what we do:

  1. Stare at computer screen
  2. Check and install program updates to ensure full functionality and security of PC
  3. Run speed test of computer and assess performance as too low
  4. Browse future writing powerhouses deemed to increase productivity
  5. Purchase laptop to have ability to work in the park while maintaining efficient workflow
  6. Look up current weather conditions and conclude the need for comfortable clothing
  7. Research latest outdoor clothing trends and admire yak wool for its warmth and breathability

Yak Shaving as Rationalisation Strategy

You see where this is going. I spare you the hairy details. It’s a bit like seven degrees of yak shaving. Instead of progressing that essay, we’ve gone on a strange series of side quests, down a rabbit hole at whose end the inevitable yak lives.

We can think of yak shaving as the most trivial activity imaginable which is still remotely linked to our original goal.

Now, we may notice that none of the above steps is entirely irrelevant to our original task. That’s what makes yak shaving so troublesome. Maintaining our equipment is part of being a writer. We do need a decent laptop and comfortable clothing to work outside. Plus, we got lots of easy little dopamine kicks from successfully updating software, exploring new hardware, or buying new exciting stuff. Feels like progress.

Consciously or subconsciously, we rationalised our way through all those activities. Our brain outsmarted itself by giving us the illusion that we’re doing something useful. That is until we catch ourselves applying shaving cream to a furry animal.

According to the theory, yak shaving is where it ends. So we can think of yak shaving as the most trivial activity imaginable that is still remotely linked to our original goal. It may be a good idea to map out the space in-between our aim to be an essay writer and ending up as an ox barber.

Mapping Out the Yak Shaving Universe

When we get lost, we turn to a map. The map we’ll be turning to is made up of so-called nested hierarchies; as explained by Canadian psychologist Dr Jordan B. Peterson. Nested hierarchies are comparable to Russian babushka dolls of goals, subgoals and micro-routines.

The most basic routines would be those that involve some kind of muscle movement, such as opening your essay draft with a click. The micro-routines lead to subgoals (writing a paragraph), which are part of our even larger more conceptual goals, such as writing that essay.

Yak Shaving
A simplified nested hierarchy

As you may have noticed when reading the previous paragraph, the more abstract and conceptual an idea is, the more we lose the connection between the mind and the body. It almost feels like our brain has to do the legwork, but the rest of our body doesn’t know how to contribute and is tempted to scroll away.

So in sum, being a good writer seems to be the result of mastering and appropriately prioritising all the associated micro-routines. As far as I can tell, this is where the dramas with procrastination originate. Science has it that one of the main reasons for procrastination is fear of failure. This may happen when goals seem out of reach, that is out of the zone of proximal development.

Fooling Ourselves Out of Productivity

Yak Shaving

Being a good writer is one huge doll filled with potentially unexplored hierarchies of subgoals and unmastered micro-routines. So what do we do if we feel we can’t manage the task at hand? We pivot to the next best thing our body knows how to do in order to avoid pain. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that yak shaving is a rather hands-on activity.

In our example, we intuitively broke down our task into smaller and related activities and did those that were just close enough to appease our conscience and far enough from our original goal to avoid what we were meant to do. It looks like our quest down the rabbit hole is very similar to the psychology social networks use to keep us engaged on their platforms.[1]

Wherever our attention currently is, an algorithm offers us more and more similar content – even though it might lead us away from what we originally wanted. When it comes to our inner algorithm, it seems easy to fool ourselves because we can’t fool ourselves. The nested hierarchy and micro-routines operate within us if we want it or not.

How to Use Yak Shaving to Our Advantage

It seems like the problem is our attempt to tackle an overwhelming goal by facing it head-on. But all that does is make us sneak away from it. Maybe we have our map upside down? Instead of starting at our highest goal, how about we sneak up on it from afar? That is we start with a seemingly unproductive activity such as yak shaving.

Luckily, the micro-routines of writing are rather intuitive to us. The most basic routine that’s still remotely linked to our goal of progressing that essay is where we begin. It’s the one that requires the least brainpower or motivation and is the most hands-on. As we work ourselves up, we collect more and more dopamine from managing ever more difficult tasks:

  1. Stare at computer screen
  2. Open essay draft (a rewarding double-click)
  3. Read parts of draft (the title or some part that seems least scary)
  4. Set challenge to find typo (shouldn’t be too difficult). Maybe find two. While you’re at it, correct some of the other ones.
  5. Make minor edits to wording or grammar (we’re starting to leave yak-shaving territory).
  6. Move some paragraphs around. Just one or two to work on the structure. Maybe three or four. (Great, the essay is already better than five minutes ago.)
  7. Perhaps you’ve just had an idea about a new paragraph. Write it in a stream of consciousness manner. No matter how imperfect it turns out to be, it’ll be better than nothing…

…or ending your day on a yak farm applying a second layer of shaving cream.

Closing Thoughts

Yak Shaving is a memorable way to conceptualise what’s going on in your head whenever you don’t feel like doing the task at hand. If Yak Shaving is too playful for you, try other methods against procrastination such as the 10 Minute Rule. Or learn about the Instant Gratification Monkey living in your head. It’s as good as any strategy, really.