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Yak Shaving: How to Stay Focused

If the theory proposed by investor Naval Ravikant is correct, 99% of the work you do is useless. It just doesn’t add to the bottom line. Even though Naval admits: “You still have to do it because it’s iterating your way to the 1% that is useful.” If you want to distinguish the trivial aspects of your work from the useful ones, look no further than Yak Shaving. Careful though. Yak Shaving can either be used as justification for even the most trivial tasks or lead you down the rabbit hole of procrastination. Here’s what Yak Shaving is and how you can use it to stay focused.

What Is Yak Shaving?

Yak Shaving describes the process of working through seemingly trivial tasks that are nonetheless still necessary to achieve a bigger goal. The term was coined in the late 1990s by MIT student Carlin Vieri. Here’s how his colleague Jeremy H. Brown explained his concept in an email to researchers at the MIT AI Lab:

Yak shaving is what you are doing when you’re doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you’re supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you’re doing to the original meta-task.

Brown used Yak Shaving as a tongue-in-cheek means to encourage researchers to attend a social event at MIT. Having a drink with others wasn’t “socializing or slacking off,” he explained. They may have to track down someone to talk about a project, so attending the event was in fact work: “You’ll be connected to your project via the process of yak shaving!”

It is said that Vieri was inspired by the classic cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show. Indeed, the episode The Boy Who Cried Rat introduced Yak Shaving Day. Similar to Christmas, it’s a holiday on which people wait for the shaven yak to float by in its enchanted canoe. While the cartoonish term was coined in the tech world it can be applied to any type of work really.

A Yak Shaving Example

The average Yak Shaving story reads like the script of a sitcom. Imagine it’s your weekend and you sit at home trying to finish writing that important report for work. Your laptop battery dies so you need to fetch the charger from the office. You don’t have a key, though, so you call a colleague. He’s happy to help but he’s at his son’s basketball game.

Arriving at the game you learn that the colleague has the office key at home. However, he won’t leave until the game is over. So you have to stay, watch and cheer his team until the end. The good news is that his son’s team won. The bad news is that they won’t drive back home without celebrating. This is how you end up eating burgers and fries with a visibly proud dad and his son.

We could go on and on. Eventually, you’ll probably get the keys, fetch the charger and are back at your desk to finish that report. But here is the important part: Even watching a basketball game and eating burgers can be justified as work if you see it through the lens of Yak Shaving. Each activity was vital in reaching your overall goal of finishing that document.

Yak Shaving and Modern Life

Truth be told, lots of Yak Shaving situations seem to be dictated by the absurdities of modern life. An unlikely case in point is the classic animated film Twelve Tasks of Asterix. Gaulish warriors Asterix and Obelix are challenged by Emperor Julius Caesar. If they complete a set of 12 tasks, he will hand over the Roman Empire to them.

Task number eight requires our heroes to get Permit A38 in The Place That Sends You Mad. A “simple formality” that turns out to be rather challenging. The large building is filled with incompetent, useless and indifferent bureaucrats. They send the Gauls on a quest from one office to another counter to another floor where they need to get the pink form in order to apply for the blue form that will get them the green form and so on.

Beyond its cartoonish surface, Permit A38 serves as a metaphor for modern bureaucracy and life in general. How many of our days do we spend labouring away meaninglessly? Unable to see the futility of our efforts. Unable to find the off-ramp to something more meaningful. Fill out forms to get stuff you don’t need. Sacrifice your weekend to finish the report no one will read.

As you can imagine, Asterix and Obelix are almost driven insane. They only manage to complete the task by hacking the whole system. As they ask for the made-up Permit A39, The Place That Sends You Mad is plunged into chaos as everyone tries to figure out what this form is. Eventually, the director just hands them Permit A38. Just to get rid of the troublemakers.

Yak Shaving and Procrastination

Yak Shaving
Yak Shaving

Beyond the madness out of our control, Yak Shaving can also be linked to procrastination. Because the idea also implies that we can easily end up doing nonessential tasks in an attempt to avoid tackling a big goal. Reminiscent of the Law of Trivialities, we lose ourselves in increasingly trivial activities until we find ourselves shaving the metaphorical yak.

As physicist Richard Feynman said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” And indeed, there’s a fine line between Yak Shaving and “flimsy rationalizations”, as Jeremy Brown put it. If you put your mind to it, you can pretty much justify any behaviour as Yak Shaving.

Consider our urgent weekend writing task again. Studies have shown the importance of a clean and tidy work environment. So you better clean the house as it’s technically part of your work. But you can’t do housework when you’re weak and hungry. Better go for a decent dinner first. But dinner is best enjoyed in company. Better get the boys together for a night out. But it’s cold outside. I hear yak wool has some remarkable insulation qualities…

Consciously or unconsciously, we rationalise our way through all those activities. We outsmart ourselves by giving us the illusion that we’re doing something useful in relation to the big task at hand. Taken to the extreme we arrive at Yak Shaving. As a procrastination strategy, it’s the most trivial activity imaginable that we can still remotely link to our original goal.

Nested Hierarchies

There’s an obvious solution to getting bogged down in trivial tasks. First, make sure you pursue something meaningful within your Circle of Competence. Then keep track of that goal and the smaller activities that contribute to your being successful. One way to do that is to conceptualise them in a nested hierarchy.

A nested hierarchy is a ranked order of various sets of goals and subgoals all the way down to micro-routines. It’s comparable to Russian Matryoshka dolls, increasingly large wooden figures that are placed inside each other. As an example, let’s visualise what it takes to achieve the goal of becoming a “good writer” in a nested hierarchy.

Yak Shaving
A Nested Hierarchy of Being a Good Writer

Starting at the bottom, the most basic routines would be those that involve some kind of muscle movement. Opening your essay draft with a click for example. It may seem insignificant but is crucial if you write on a computer. The micro-routines are nested under various subgoals, such as writing a sentence and then a paragraph. Further up in the hierarchy, they’re all part of our even larger conceptual goal of writing that essay. The essay is of course a significant part of being a good writer.

The more seemingly insignificant the micro-routines and the further away they are from our main goal, the harder it is to justify their existence. For instance, the various requirements for maintaining your writing equipment can become rather disconnected from your big career goal. But in sum, being a good writer is the result of managing and prioritising all of the associated subgoals and micro-routines. Preferably in such a way that you’re not wasting time with useless work.

How to Stay Focused

Knowing about Yak Shaving and nested hierarchies can help us navigate our various daily activities and stay focused. We can determine if that “stupid, fiddly little task” gets us closer to our goal. Or if we’re merely looking for excuses to not do a task we don’t know how to tackle. If it’s the latter we can try Yak Shaving in reverse. Instead of sneaking away from that daunting task, how about we engage in increasingly untrivial tasks?

We start with an easy and ostensibly unproductive activity. 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. As we work ourselves up, we collect more and more dopamine from managing ever more difficult tasks:

  • Stare at computer screen.
  • Open essay draft (a rewarding double-click).
  • Read parts of draft (the title or some part that seems least scary).
  • Set challenge to find typo (shouldn’t be too difficult). Maybe find two. While you’re at it, correct some of the other ones.
  • Make minor edits to wording or grammar (we’re starting to leave yak-shaving territory).
  • 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.)
  • Perhaps you’ve just had an idea about a new paragraph. Write it in a Stream of Consciousness manner.

No matter how imperfect your attempt 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

In its worst form, Yak Shaving is an insidious form of self-deception and procrastination. In its best form, it’s a reminder to take work not too seriously. We could even call it a celebration of the fascinating little side quests we get to go on whenever we’re pursuing a worthwhile goal.

99% of your work may indeed be useless and inefficient. But as Naval explains, with experience comes the ability to narrow it down to the things that matter. And who wants 100% focus and efficiency anyway if you can achieve your goal while enjoying a bit of Yak Shaving along the way?