On Shaving Yaks and Cookies for Mice

Oh, the yak shave – one of my favorite expressions:

Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you’re working on.

I first heard the expression a few years ago, mainly in techie circles. Seth Godin gives a nice, less techie description:

Yak Shaving is the last step of a series of steps that occurs when you find something you need to do.

Another of the examples I use to describe the experience is the “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” loop from the cool kids book by Laura Joffe Numeroff:

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk… Then he’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache…

yak-shaveWhat happens is the phenomenon can become a great excuse to avoid something, or a reason to procrastinate.

“Oh, I can’t go to the networking event, because I haven’t got my new cards yet. And I can’t get my cards done until I get the graphic just right. And I can’t get the graphic just right until Peggy finds the right font. And she can’t find the right font, until…”

And so on…

Productivity impediments are lurking everywhere – and avoiding a yak shave may be, well unavoidable. But consider the loop you’re stuck in and take back your time.

Because unless you happen to be a yak groomer, or a mouse’s assistant, you’ve probably got better things to do.