Yak shaving

February 13, 2020 — February 13, 2020

My central challenge in time management.

The original use of yak shaving.

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.

For me there is a related question, which is “can I avoid this yak shaving by doing a simpler thing?”.

Gwern on yak shaving:

Godin’s take-away is that yak shaving is misguided perfectionism: once one realizes one is yak shaving, one should decide “Don’t go to Home Depot for the hose. The minute you start walking down a path toward a yak shaving party, it’s worth making a compromise. Doing it well now is much better than doing it perfectly later.”

I interpret yak shaving entirely differently. At least when I feel I am trapped in yak shaving, it more often reflects a failure cascade in the complex system I am currently part of: either mentally I have gotten trapped into a local minima and have failed to reflect periodically on what the best way is, or the system really is broken and once the yak is shaved, requires root cause analysis to find out how to fix the fundamental problems and how to prevent them from recurring.

I see ‘yak-shaving’ as a description of a situation where you are nested so deep in subgoals that you’ve forgotten your original goal, at which point a good heuristic is to wake up and say “this is a lot of yak-shaving!” and think about what is going on that has led to an undesirable situation.