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How to Avoid 'Yak Shaving' When Solving a Problem

Learn to rethink your process when you're spending too much time on the steps to your goal.

By
Stever Robbins,
December 12, 2017
Episode #480

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the problem of yak shaving

Listener Amy recently wrote in: "Hi Stever! Quick question. Have you done any podcasts about the yak shaving problem? When you set out in your day to accomplish one thing, but to do that you have to fix another thing, and that requires something else, and the next thing you know you’re in the Himalayas shaving a yak. I keep having this problem and I could use some guidance."

I know, right? The world is complicated that way. We can get so focused on a solution that we don’t notice when our solution leads us off track. The next thing we know, we have a freshly-shaved yak licking our faces in appreciation. As enticing as this sounds, yak saliva does not live up to its reputation. Don’t ask me how I know this.

When yak slobber beckons, however, you can resist. You need to notice when you’re off course, stop, rethink, and swap in a simpler solution based on what you’ve learned since you began.

Notice When You’re Solving the Solution

Even if you’re not aware of the idea of yak shaving, you may still be doing it. Melvin, the IT coordinator at Green Growing Things plant shop, begins his day with one goal in mind: to connect all the computers in the shop to a brand new 5G network. But when Melvin starts to sift through each computer, he notices that each one has so much adware, it would be impossible to get the network up and running without installing an ad-blocker first.

But plant-shop-grade ad-blockers are expensive. Melvin knows computers. He figures he can save money by writing his own rather than buying one online. He heads to the library to borrow a book on writing anti-virus software, because being a smart man, he knows that paper books result in better retention than just reading something on the web.

But then he remembers he doesn't have his library card! It's in the pocket of a jacket he lent to Grandma Cuddles earlier in the week to keep her warm on the day care’s weekly salvage yard field trip. And Melvin can’t get his jacket back from Cuddles unless he returns Cuddles’s wool coat. But the coat is missing some of its stuffing. Hours later, Melvin is shaving a yak at the local petting zoo to collect enough yak-wool to fix it.

This is “solving the solution.” The original solution, to get the jacket, is now more complicated than the original problem, getting a library card. Melvin’s to-do list now includes shaving yaks, trading coats, and possibly risking being shot by security guards for trespassing at the salvage yard. 

Too Many Mini-Problems Are Red Flags

Yak territory becomes clear when you look at your task list. If the majority of the items are things you’ve added in order to finish a task that you thought was straightforward, you may be solving the solution instead of solving the problem.

Sometimes there are genuine obstacles to be overcome when mini-problems arise. So of course you’ll end up with some new barriers to overcome. But it’s important to stop and consider whether your solution to the problem is becoming more difficult than the problem itself. If so, it’s time to simplify.

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