Yak shaving

Yak shaving is sure to have happened to you, but you didn’t realize it because you didn’t know it had a name. Understanding it will help you to avoid it.

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 do that he first had to buy a new hose, but to do that he first needed to borrow his neighbour’s E-Zpass to cross a toll bridge to get to Home Depot, but to do that 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. For example, I worked with one woman to help her clear her cluttered hallway. At first it progressed very smoothly, picking up one item at a time and putting it where it belonged. Things that needed to be taken upstairs were temporarily placed in a Transit box, to be taken later to where they belonged.

After a while, we could go no further because the remaining items needed to go into 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 originally wanted to do, and no more. 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.

How yak shaving happens

When you set out to do a task, there may be a series of related things that need to be done. For example, if you want to renew your passport, you need to have your photo taken, fill in the forms, and post the documents to the relevant office or perhaps make a trip to the office in person. Step 1 is followed by Step 2, which is then followed by Step 3. It’s a linear progression, with each step logically following on from the last. This is called a multi-step task.

Yak shaving is not like this at all.

An example of yak shaving would be needing a new passport, but in order to do that you need to get a new photo, and in order to do that you first need to get a haircut, and in order to do that you first need to get your car repaired so that you can drive to your hair stylist’s salon. So instead of applying for your passport, you spend the entire day getting your car fixed and feeling frustrated because you never got started on the job you first set out to do. That’s yak shaving!

Spot that yak!

The reason it’s important to stop, catch yourself in the act, and realize you are yak shaving is because this immediately takes you out of feeling like a victim of circumstances and helps to reduce the feelings of frustration that can arise.

Better still, now that you are wise to it, you can spot when it’s about to happen, have a little chuckle to yourself about it, and either decide to continue with good-natured enthusiasm or leave that particular yak unshaven for now and find another way to accomplish your goal (in the example I’ve given, you could get a friend to give you a lift, or take a bus or taxi instead).

A good sense of humour definitely is an asset when it comes to yak shaving, which is why I have chosen a cute cartoon yak for the picture that accompanies this blog. Next time this happens to you, bring this image to mind, smile, and make a conscious decision to shave it or not have it. Be aware too, that entire herds of yaks can emerge when there’s clutter clearing to be done, so be particularly alert for them at those times.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2013, updated 2024

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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 fifth 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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14 Responses to Yak shaving

  1. This is so good. I can’t believe I have never heard this term or the process described so brilliantly.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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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