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.


  1. The bottom line, Tony, is that when we are looking for an excuse, any excuse will do. My own favorite dodge for home improvement projects is that I almost never seem to have the right tool do job…

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