I just got my copy of MAKE:. I read it in one sitting cover to cover. What an excellent mook. There were a lot of great articles. In the section Life Hacks: Overclocking your Productivity, there was fun little article called Yak Shaving by Danny O'Brien and Merlin Mann. "Yak shaving is the technical term for when you find yourself eight levels deep - and possibly in an recursive loop - in a stack of jobs." The example they give is:

You start out deciding to tidy your room and you realize that in order to do that you'll need some more trash bags, so you need to go to the shops, which will involve you getting out the car, but the car needs gas, so you'll need to go to the gas station first, which means you should probably find your gas discount card, which involves finding your keys, which are in the room somewhere...
They talk about many hackers spending a lot of their time "lost in life's subroutines" and that "some of us like solving puzzles a bit more than we like solved puzzles." They suggest that super-efficient hackers "learn when to say no to the temptation of endless fiddling." Veeeery interesting. So this is what I've been doing all my life. Shaving Yaks.

I can fit most of my life into this metaphor. I remember the moment when I was working in television, music promotion and motion pictures and decided that IP and the Internet would solve many problems that I had with the control that big companies had on the flow of information. I helped set up the first ISP in Japan, helped set up Infoseek Japan, started one of the first web companies in Japan... but it still didn't solve the "problem." I realized that there were some basic problems in society and the market was broken. I noticed that democracy was broken and tried to work on fixing that in Japan. Then I realized that it was broken all over the place and decided to work on that too.

Blogging was another important way of solving the freedom of expression and flow of information I was after and there was Six Apart. Then I realized that that we needed a better way to organize blogs and there was Technorati. But copyright was broken and there was Creative Commons. And Internet governance... and ICANN. Oh no! Suddenly I have no time and am totally immersed in the "subroutines" of my life. Acutally, my whole life is just one big yak shaving exercise. Luckily, these subroutines ARE my life and are very rewarding.

I do agree with the article that you have to learn when to say no to the temptation of "endless fiddling" but it is through this fiddling that I sometimes find myself in a new place, sometimes slightly before the rest of the pack. If it weren't for this fiddling, I'd be spending my life solving boring problems for boring bosses.

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Fuck me running. We used that term around the office for a while and now I know what it means. In retrospect I am a life long Yak Shaver for I do love the solving of the problems, Solved problems hold no magic.

I do agree with the article that you have to learn when to say no to the temptation of "endless fiddling" but it is through this fiddling that I sometimes find myself in a new place, sometimes slightly before the rest of the pack. If it weren't for this fiddling, I'd be spending my life solving boring problems for boring bosses.

I couldn't agree with this more. It's only by fiddling on things that others gave up that we can really start to uncover the problems - and the problems' problems - that need to be rectified in order to "fix things".

We all take for granted that many of the routines, systems, checks and balances we have in our lives were created by a committee of white-haired men in suits over a conference table. As the years go own all these hairy layers get superimposed on top of eachother, until we're stuck with something fundamentally broken, with patch upon patch to make it look decent.

Right now, the more yak shavers, the better. :)

Mook needs an entry in wikipedia.

Check the whois on kijiji.com.

"Shaving the Yak" can also be absolutely paralyzing if you let it get out of hand, because you start to see the endlessly recursing extending off into infinity and all of a sudden "I want to move this desk 90 degrees" becomes "Dammit, I'm gonna have to move to Tokyo".
Happens to me everyday. ;)

Dude & dudettes. This is a life issue. To put a roof over your head you have to shave a yak. To take that holiday in Scandanavia - shave a yak. New car? Get the shears. Nothing we do relates to the reward (unless you grow your own vegetables). We are all yak-shavers, burger-flippers and geek coders. Since when did solving a core-dump get you a turkey dinner? If you want to east turkey you have to catch one and to a lesser extent find some cranberries...

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Some guy named Henry David Thoreau said that!

"It is true but we are half-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who underake no perserving, neverending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearhside from which we set out.

Half the walk is retracing our steps.

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.

IF YOU ARE READY TO LEAVE fATHER and mOTHER and bROTHER and sISTER, and wIFE and cHILD and fRIENDS, and never seen them again--if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled your affairs, and are a FREE MAN;

then you are ready for a WALK."

from Walking, Henry David Thoreau, Penguin Books pocket edition

I carry this wherever I go and walk with the scripture.

Good post and comments. Thanks for this perspective.

I think what we’d hoped to say is not that you shouldn’t ever “fiddle”—far from it, experimenting and wandering can take you wonderful places. Always have for me, anyhow.

I would, however, distinguish that from according-to-Hoyle yak shaving, which is something a good deal less useful. The notional yak, at least in my mind, refers to the dogged determination to unwind an apparent skein of dependencies at any cost—even when a less circuitous approach could solve the parent problem more elegantly.

Finding useful connections outside the apparent path of your life? That ain’t no yak. That’s what it’s all about, as you’ve aptly demonstrated. :-)

Yak shaving fans (or victims) may appreciate my etymology of yak shaving.

One good technique is to make a list of necessary subroutines *before* and stick to them. Try to figure out what is the minimum result these subroutines should yield and while it is accomplished, go on. Procrastinators seldom know or even want to know what they actually want to have as an end product.

I know this because I am a yak shaver myself. Of the worst kind.

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