A while ago, my son Teague introduced me to the concept of “yak shaving.” If you do a web search you get a few definitions which are variations on a theme. They boil down to something like “activities you find yourself doing which appear unrelated to the objective you started out with but which, in fact, are intermediate steps to get to that objective that you didn’t anticipate.” Since then, my brother and sister-on-law (Lew and Susan) have shared with me a similar concept they have appropriately named “progresstination.” You haven’t really gotten to the task you intended to start – you are procrastinating – but you are making progress in the intended direction. I have been doing a lot of both recently, so I thought it was time revisit them in an updated post.
One morning I had on my list to pay my estimated taxes for Q4 of 2014. I do this online usually. First, I needed to confirm what I had already paid and this meant I needed to find the passwords for my online tax accounts. This sent me to my password vault which, as I opened it, reminded me that I needed to update some passwords which were “not complex enough to be secure.”
When I had problems sorting through which passwords to change, I realized I needed to organize my passwords and site logins better in my software vault, so I created some new folders and sorted the passwords into these folders.
That reminded me that I had been meaning to put into the vault some other passwords I had been keeping on scraps of paper. Among the scraps of paper was another reminder that I needed to update my EZPass account to a new credit card because we were forced to get a new card due to a security breach at a store where we shop occasionally. That sent me to going through the list of services that are automatically charged to our credit card to make sure they were also updated. So I did that.
Just as I finally got back to the task of paying my estimated taxes, I realized that this was a great example of “yak shaving” and I should write about it for a blog post. So I wrote this blog post. You get the idea.
According to the wiktionary, the term “yak shaving” was “… coined by Carlin Vieri in his time at the MIT AI Lab after viewing a 1991 episode of The Ren and Stimpy Show featuring ‘Yak Shaving Day,’ a Christmas-like Holiday where participants hang diapers instead of stockings, stuff rubber boots with cole slaw, and watch for the shaven yak to float by in his enchanted canoe.” I guess he thought that someone looking at the chain of tasks that he was engaged in while trying to get ready to solve his original problem would make about as much sense to someone outside the process as shaving yaks.
My own sense is that part of the appeal of yak shaving (and probably why I am so prone to it) is that it speaks to that optimism I have that if I can only come up with a systematic solution to solving a problem then it will take a lot less time and effort next time. That dream of an efficient and systematic solution justifies all manner of preparatory activities like rebuilding my work bench and re-hanging my tools before starting on a new carpentry project. Since I have a definite tendency to seek out problems that are in need of (in my humble view) a systematic solution, I spend a lot of time yak shaving. I just didn’t know what it was called.