Mastering the art of yak shaving


Yak shaving refers to any series of unrelated tasks that have to be completed before you can do the job you first set out to do.

Said to have been coined by programmer, Carlin Vieri, yak shaving was made famous in one of Seth Godin’s blogs, where he described the process of wanting to wax his car, but to get to this he first had to buy a new hose, but to do this he first needed to borrow his neighbour’s E-Zpass to cross a toll bridge to get to Home Depot, but to do this he first needed to restuff the mooshi pillow his son borrowed from the neighbour. Hence ending up at the zoo shaving a yak!

The connection between yak shaving and clutter clearing

I come across yak shaving, in one form or another, in just about every clutter clearing consultation I do. Recently, for example, I worked with a woman to help her clear her cluttered hallway. She has chronic health problems and the hallway area of her home is located in the Health area of the bagua, so this was an obvious place to start.

At first it progressed very smoothly, picking up an item at a time and putting it where it belonged. Items that needed to be taken upstairs were temporarily placed in a Transit box, to be taken later to where they belonged. But after a while, we could go no further because the bulk of items remaining needed to go to the utility room, which was so cluttered that not another thing could be fitted in. Hence ending up clearing the utility room in order to clear the hallway. We were yak shaving.

And it didn’t end there. Part of clearing out the utility room involved moving some large items to an upstairs bedroom, which involved rearranging the bedroom in order to fit them in.

At that stage we could easily have given up, or become distracted and changed our focus to clutter clearing the bedroom instead, but this is where yak shaving strategy comes in. You do just enough to make it possible to do whatever you need to do to make whatever you originally wanted to make happen, and no more. In other words, you always keep the original goal in mind and do not allow yourself to go off at a tangent. So we made space for the stuff in the bedroom, then polished off the utility room, and finally cleared the hallway. Job done, for that day at least.

Take each yak in your stride

Many attempts at clutter clearing are foiled because people end up doing something they never planned to do, so end up feeling like they didn’t get a result. And when you don’t get a result, you don’t get that feel-good release of endorphins that will inspire you to continue the process.

Perfectionists find this particularly difficult because they want to do everything perfectly. But if we’d tackled the bedroom, we’d have run out of steam and ended up with the hallway, the utility room and the bedroom all in worse shape than when we started. By doing only the bare minimum in the bedroom, we were able to finish off the utility room and complete the original task. The bedroom was left for another day.

Spot that yak!

Next time you find yourself doing some obscure task you never planned to do, check to see if you are genuinely yak shaving with a firm goal in mind, or have you somehow lost the plot? Allow yourself a little chuckle at how complicated life can get, and then either carry on yak shaving with renewed gusto, or make a course correction if you discover you’ve gone off track.

Related article
How many yaks have you shaved lately without even knowing it?

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2013

About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fourth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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16 Responses to Mastering the art of yak shaving

  1. I am an expert yak shaver. Now, at least, I know how to label it on my resume. (ha-ha, j/k!) =] How I wish you would visit the western part of the USA, Karen; I am certain I would glean much from your workshops, 1:1 consultation. Thank you for another humorous look at myself!

    1. Hi Elaine, I’ve taught many workshops and done many consultations in the US over the years, especially the West Coast, but I have recently let my US work visa lapse to focus on writing new books rather than travelling so much. However you can still take an online course with me, if you’d like to. Many Americans do!

  2. Thanks for this, Karen. I think yak shaving happens with the thinking process: You are reasoning about something so you consider a number of other ideas before you can conclude something about the original thought. Yak shaving is also very relevant in studying: You find you don’t understand something, so you go back in your study material to bridge the gap. I find, however, that ‘losing the plot’ as you so aptly put it, happens much more readily with affairs of the mind, where one is likely to wander off in thought. With studying, it’s easy to be distracted away from the original pursuit by bits and pieces of information.

  3. What a great insight for me to come across! I’ve been going from project to project, usually not completing any of them, and feeling incapable and defeated. Now I see what’s going on and also how to deal with it. I will see how I implement this technique in the coming week. Thanks, Karen!

  4. I get it! And I have done it. In fact, I still am slowly making my way towards my goal. But when you realize you have found a place to put your paints and papers and brushes — all those crafty things — or whatever you are decluttering, it is delightful.

  5. I wanted to add a possible reason for the term “yak shaving”. I’ve been to Bhutan and up in the higher mountain passes, farmers keep yak herds. Yaks are famously irascible animals and little provocation is needed to have them charge at you. I waved to one from the tour van and it charged me! The guide told me it’s common for people to be injured by them just for walking too close. It’ll take a lot of coercion and trouble to shave them, I’m sure.

      1. Or maybe yak shaving is just something that shouldn’t be done. If you’ve gotten so far off course that you are trying to shave a yak, you are being completely unproductive!

        I soooooooo relate to this post. Just an hour or two ago, I was thinking, “I want to do x, but in order to do that, I need to do y, and as long as I’m doing y, it would make sense to do z at the same time.” I stopped myself before I got to yak shaving, and I was into another task anyway, but I was at least able to identify it as one of my perfectionist pitfalls that keeps me from getting things done. And then your newsletter showed up!

  6. I wished you had brought this up years ago, Karen. I had been yak shaving for years always feeling frustrated, tired, disheartened, etc, over clearing clutter. Not only was I trying wasting time formulating seemingly better and more complicated procedural steps, I ended up being foiled by them. Many vicious circles later, I’m still fighting myself.

    Now there’s a name for it, I feel a lot less caught up by my own sneaky mind and am more ready to keep my focus on the big picture of simply clearing clutter and not adding the burden of doing it perfectly.

    You’re a god send.

  7. Great article! This is my problem at the moment. I am trying to get my house back together after a burst pipe and mucho damage. This is a great time to clear clutter, but I was feeling overwhelmed because in order to declutter one area, I had to clutter up another one, and it seemed neverending. So now after reading this I will remember to “always keep the original goal in mind and do not allow yourself to go off at a tangent”. Eventually, it will all get done.
    Thank you.

    1. Ooooh, shiny!

      But I love the tangents! So much of life is in the tangents! Karen, what about ways to track the tangents for future exploration instead of disallowing them? Should we assume that if it is important, the Universe will present it again?

  8. Thank you! Your article describes my angst and overwhelming feelings for parts of my home. I tend to tackle areas that are in good shape first to have instant success and hence, avoid the elephant in the garage and basement! I would rather travel and at my age am doing just that while I can! I try to focus when I am home in small batches of time. Otherwise, I am so defeated.

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