Shaving the Yak 🪒

Sometimes, the best adventure to take is the one you stand no chance at succeeding at. But you learn something anyway.

Let me know if this sounds familiar to you. You start on an adventure, possibly with the help of a computer, but something happens and you get distracted.

Or, more likely, you don’t get distracted but the shape of the problem you’re trying to solve changes, or the adventure you were expecting to travel upon went in another direction entirely.

As I’ve written before, this is something called yak shaving, and I find myself doing it often. It essentially is shorthand for endlessly getting caught up in unrelated tasks when trying to complete a main goal. It was a term inspired by an episode of Ren & Stimpy.

While often brought up in the context of programming, there are other settings where this state of affairs emerges. For example, the hero in an ’80s action movie who keeps getting pulled into unrelated side quests that don’t seem to have any direct tie to the plot but nonetheless take up most of the runtime. Or the hacking and slashing that makes up much of your average ’90s RPG.

And the ease of this happening to any one person is actually not that surprising. Think about if someone is building a shed, and they suddenly say, oh shoot, I forgot my screwdriver, and it turns out the screwdriver is buried in a junk drawer—but, oh shoot, it’s the wrong screw head! So now I have to go to Home Depot to invest in screwdrivers. But since I’m there, I might as well look at lawn mowers. And how about hitting up Cold Stone on the way back? Wait, why did we go out again? Crap, the shed!

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(Dan Asaki/Unsplash)

Now, I think a lot of folks would see something like this as time-wasting and almost kind of negative, but I actually feel like it’s kind of a positive thing. I think what I find so interesting about the process is that it makes me think about how my brain parses problems. And it helps me realize my strengths and weaknesses, even if I don’t succeed.

This actually came up last night. I was curious about pulling out the old Pinebook Pro again, because there was a ChromeOS variant available for it now, and I wanted to check it out. But I was having problems with my screen, so I had to try another operating system to see if it was the screen or something else. (I eventually figured out that the low battery was probably to blame.)

This required a few layers of jumping back and forth, but it was no big loss. Just a few minutes of my time. But if it was longer, fine. That’s what I signed up for.

So if something feels a bit unbearable, maybe you have to give yourself the white space to experiment with it, and to test your abilities to shave a yak of your own. After all, you might find something interesting on one of those tangents.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 9 minutes, 8 seconds

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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