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.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #480

Find a Simpler Solution Using What You’ve Learned On Your Yak Quest

Part of why you got caught solving the solution is that as you worked on the original task, you discovered the task was not as straightforward as you thought. In other words, you learned. You now know more about the original task than you did at the start.

This is the silver lining to shaving yaks—by the time you’re chillin’ with your formerly-furry friend, you’ve learned enough to understand the original problem in greater depth. You almost certainly have a better idea of how you should have approached the problem to begin with. So ask yourself, now, whether there’s a better way to solve it.

In Melvin’s case, he asks, “How would I approach the adware problem differently?” And he finds he has an answer. ”I could have just backed up the data, wiped all of the hard drives clean, and reinstalled from scratch. It would have been eight hours out the window waiting for all the computers to re-boot, but it’s a known cost and a known solution guaranteed to work every time. I would have had the system up and running by the end of the day.”

You may be solving the solution instead of solving the problem.

Beware the 'Sunk Cost' Fallacy

All this rethinking—and the redoing that often comes with it—runs up against something called the 'Sunk Cost' fallacy. We don’t want to waste the effort we’ve put in so far. But thinking that way leads to even more waste. That time can never be recovered, so it shouldn’t be considered when we’re deciding how to go forward. Even if Melvin has put in weeks towards writing anti-virus software, it may be faster and cheaper to scrap those efforts and just spend a single day reinstalling the hard drives.

Swap in your simpler solution if the time savings are worth it, even if that means starting the project over from scratch. I once scrapped an entire project three months into an 8-month project plan. My supervisor had a heart attack. That was a good thing, because while he was busy recovering in the cardiac wing of the local hospital, he couldn’t object. I scrapped the project, restarted with the new approach, and delivered it on time.

Amy, as much as we may love our Yak friends, I stand with you in solidarity: Let’s just get our tasks done instead. Think consciously about what you’re working on and how it helps solve your original problem. Notice when you create mini-problems for yourself. If the solution-related tasks overwhelm your task list, rethink your solution if they start to pile up. If there’s a better way, change your tactics right away, and be willing to scrap what you’ve done so far if it will save enough time. Follow this advice, and you’ll live a wonderful, productive, happy life, forever free of yak slobber.

This is Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and Facebook. I run programs to help people have Extraordinary Lives and extraordinary careers. If you want to know more, visit http://SteverRobbins.com.

Image of yak © Shutterstock


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT. 

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