I’m writing this post in Word, because my internet connection is down.  After spending the last hour trying to restart routers and connect to different internet providers, I realised I could achieve my task of writing a blog post in Word without access to the internet. How ironic that today’s post was going to be on yak shaving. It’s an awesome reminder that despite our best efforts to stay focused, and be as effective and efficient as possible we often end up shaving yaks without even realizing it.

If you aren’t familiar with “Yak Shaving”, check out this definition from wikipedia:

yak shaving (uncountable)

  1. (idiomatic) Any apparently useless activity which, by allowing you to overcome intermediate difficulties, allows you to solve a larger problem.
    I was doing a bit of yak shaving this morning, and it looks like it might have paid off.
  2. (idiomatic) The actually useless activity you do that appears important when you are consciously or unconsciously procrastinating about a larger problem.
    I thought I’d get more work done if I just fixed a problem with my .emacs file, but then I spent the whole afternoon yak shaving.

Last month while creating the SUGSA newsletter we became aware that the task was not as straight forward as it could have been. We decided to keep going and just make a few notes. Here’s a diagram of what happened.

Wow, that seems complicated for a fairly simple task.

Look at all the stuff on the right. None of it is core to the task. Some of it is necessary, but doing it in the middle of the task rather than getting it before hand, required context switching.

Let’s look at how we could have done better in this simple example.

  • With better planning we could have identified the prerequisites (images and eventbrite) earlier. We could then have done these tasks first so that when we started the newsletter we had everything we needed on hand.
  • The app store diversion is a great example of an impediment. With some thinking we could have identified the need for Pixelmator early and our ScrumMaster (if we had one) could have solved that problem for us

Agile teams are always looking to get better, faster, more effective, more focused, and eliminate impediments. The worst thing about yak shaving is that you don’t even realize you are doing it half the time.

Start with noticing when you are yak shaving.

For one day (or even 1 hour), keep a simple log of what you are doing, then look at what is core to the task and what required context switching. For each of those, look at how you might prevent those things from cropping up again. Is there a general impediment to solve, are there prerequisites to identify early?

Removing any of these diversions will reduce context switching and improve your focus on getting the task at hand done.

Sharpen your pencil by getting better at staying focused, rather than shaving yaks 😉