How to shave a Yak

minutes read

When I entered the meeting room, nobody was there. I took a seat and waited. Waited longer. Patiently.

Fifteen minutes after the agreed time, Allen finally entered. He was seemingly breathless and after a brief “Hello” he already started to indulge in excuses. “You know”, he started, “I wanted to bring a print-out with me to our meeting but the printer was out of toner. So I eventually had to change the cartridge, but found that we are out of cartridges. So I had to see the assistant to tell her to order some refill. Then she told me that one of our key clients had phoned for an urgent problem, so I quickly rang the guy back and we had to have this brief discussion on that important topic …”

When he had finished his story about how he managed to be fifteen minutes later, another fifteen minutes had passed.

While I could have interrupted him politely, and remind him that we had agreed a coaching session on a very specific, pressing topic, I decided to let flow.

When he finally paused, I asked: “Looks like you had a huge Yak to shave there, Allen.”

He stared at me: “What?”

I smiled and explained.

Yak Shaving is a term coined by Carlin Vieri, who was at MIT between 1993 and 1998, after seeing the Yak Shaving Day episode of Ren and Stimpy.

It refers to the chain of unfocused, unrelated, yet chained tasks that one executes, such as Allen just finished to describe in his story.

Steve, another client, was telling me years ago in our first coaching session his inability to leave home for work in the morning on time.

“There is always something between me and the door”, he told me. “It can be a broken toy of one of the kids, a letter to urgently read, a newspaper. On other days it is my lost car keys that start this cascade through a series of twenty things that I do on the way from the breakfast table to the door.”

Very often, shaving the yak happens to people as soon as they want to write that one e-mail to somebody. As it happens, you can’t write an e-mail without your mail program. Unfortunately, opening your e-mail program will most likely bring up the list of all e-mails in your inbox. For many people, that is now a primary source of distraction, whether on the office laptop, their computer at home, or the smartphone on the go.

One client described to me the frequently recurring pattern of wanting to write an e-mail and closing the computer at the end of an entire working day without having written that e-mail, but having rather surfed the web for nine hours.

While this example may seem somewhat extreme, to a certain extent it happens to all of us, if we are not carefully paying attention to where we direct our attention, or, in other words, where we put our focus. That sounds awkward, I know, however attention control is one of the most important yet difficult tasks our brain has to deal with, especially in these information influx overloaded times.

When did you catch yourself the last time shaving the yak?

Giving in on distraction is a free gimmick built into our brains. Our brains love distractions, especially when we are supposed to perform any activity that doesn’t run on autopilot and requires our neocortical brain to work. Why? Because these processes consume loads of energy, a potentially scarce resource and therefore to be avoided at all cost. Well, at most cost.

How to get over this? Focus. Before taking any action, ask yourself (quickly): “Is this on my action backlog for now?” and “Is this connected to my current intended outcomes?” If it isn’t just don’t do it.

And don’t forget to eliminate potential distractions altogether, as I outline in my book Peak Performance. (It’s really worth reading.)


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