Talk:yak shaving

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Odd definition[edit]

Yak shaving isn't pointless; yak shaving is something that's tangental to what you should be doing, and not necessary. For instance: "My goal was to recompile my project, but I saw an error message so bad that I had to blog about it. When I went to my blog, I noticed Wordpress was out of date, so I updated it. But it was incompatible with my tagging plugin, so I had to do a google search to find a way to import my tags. I never did get the recompile finished; I spent the whole day yak shaving." --Sdfisher 23:37, 28 September 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

I agree with this. Definition (2) seems contrary to the whole point of yak-shaving, which is that in order to do A, one first has to do B, which in turn requires that you first do C, etc. The tasks aren't "less useful", they are only "apparently" not useful. And they don't represent "procrastinating", because they do in fact serve a larger purpose, as in definition (1). -- 19:01, 23 May 2014 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I also agree: Definition (2) is just wrong. None of the article's citations agree with that usage. And on the very few occasions when I have encountered being used in something like that manner in the wild , the speaker was immediately corrected by someone more familiar with the term. (I am myself a native speaker of MIT jargon who has been using the term literally since the day Jeremy Brown first brought it to the attention of the rest of the community, outside the AI lab. ) Is there some compelling reason not to just delete that second definition?--Xela (talk) 21:37, 24 May 2014 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Removed the secondary definition per longstanding talk page consensus. The secondary definition is redundant with procrastination, which muddles understanding. The distinguishing characteristic yak shaving is getting caught in a series of recursive tasks, each of which has a necessary link to the completion of a larger goal. This process becomes yak shaving at the point where a casual observer could mistake it for dawdling.

For example: a new hire is sent to an office storeroom on an urgent quest for a three hole puncher and is found an hour later holding a dustpan of rodent scat. This is yak shaving if the person encountered stacks of unmarked cardboard boxes, left the room on a fruitless quest for an alternate source of three hole punch devices, also found out that the person who set up the storeroom is no longer employed there and cannot be contacted, confirmed that the search is indeed an urgent priority, yet the best anyone else knows is, "It's somewhere in the storeroom." So the individual searched each box, restacked boxes as necessary, called up the only office supply store within reasonable driving distance and found out they're out of three hole punchers, then found no feasible alternative to dealing with a pile of rodent scat blocking the last boxes. The essence of yak shaving is rational implementation of problem solving skills that nonetheless gets caught within this type of task sequence.

The only support for the removed second definition is a New York Magazine citation which, IMO, is either ambiguous or the result of a misunderstanding. Yak shaving is inherently a suboptimal use of time. Yet unlike other wastes of time which may be deliberate (procrastination) or the result of bad prioritization (getting sidetracked), yak shaving is time wasted primarily through some infernal combination of bad luck and other people's mistakes.

Per the MIT example:

"I was working on my thesis and realized I needed a reference. I'd seen a post on comp.arch recently that cited a paper, so I fired up gnus. While I was searching the for the post, I came across another post whose MIME encoding screwed up my ancient version of gnus, so I stopped and downloaded the latest version of gnus.
"Unfortunately, the new version of gnus didn't work with emacs 18, so I downloaded and built emacs 20. Of course, then I had to install updated versions of a half-dozen other packages to keep other users from hurting me. When I finally tried to use the new gnus, it kept crapping out on my old configuration. And that's why I'm deep in the gnus info pages and my .emacs file -- and yet it's all part of working on my thesis." 21:23, 27 March 2019 (UTC)Reply[reply]


This phrase comes from Carlin Vieri, a student at MIT, with a good explanation at The Jargon File page on yak-shaving suggests Vieri might have taken the name from Ren & Stimpy. I'm not sure how to properly format the etymological entry (or if this is more historical than etymological, perhaps belonging on WikiPedia:yak shaving instead), so I'm leaving this as a comment in the discussion. -- Adam Katz 16:59, 27 November 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

I do claim to have coined the term. I was physically at MIT from 1993 to 1998, so the term was in (sparse) use before 1998, although Jeremy Brown's Feb 2000 GSB message was the first web reference. The term is often incorrectly attributed to the Media Lab, but I was at the AI Lab (now CSAIL). The Jargon File entry has since been corrected, although I think Seth Grodin's blog is perpetuating the error (although he was nice enough to credit me later).

Though not a regular viewer of Ren and Stimpy, I did see the Yak Shaving Day episode and thought it bizarre enough to be the end of a long chain of tasks. The original primary task that caused me to start shaving a yak was trying to overnight a document. Getting the AI lab to pay for FedEx or DHL was very difficult at the time!

There was a wikipedia entry for a while, but alas it has been removed. -- Cvieri 01:49, 5 June 2008 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Thanks for the update (68 months ago). I see the citation was added, then declared invalid because a movie in 1950 mentioned yak shaving in a different context, then Vieri's portion was removed on the assumption that it the movie was definitive. I just brought it back. I made the unorthodox move of actually citing this talk page and the above comment as "proof" because it does look like it comes from Vieri (LinkedIn shows the same time at the lab, Jargon File and Godin both trust the GSB post) and I don't want to risk another odd purported prior mention repeating this cycle. I first heard this term in 2005 via CSAIL. At that time, the only noteworthy online reference to the term was that GSB mail, so there was no reason to doubt its integrity. Adam Katz (talk) 10:21, 2 February 2014 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Interesting etymology note - I had always assumed the term was related to configuring GNU Emacs! -- 00:05, 22 July 2011 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Shouldn't this article include Merlin Mann or Seth Godin's example where the actual result of the yak shaving _is_ yak shaving? 04:33, 1 February 2009 (UTC)Reply[reply]
There is a connection to GNU Emacs in the the GSB post, but that post credits Vieri. Jikybebna (talk) 11:18, 19 December 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

There is a specific quote here from Carl Vieri describing exactly how he started using the term and tried to foster adoptation: - apologies if I'm incorrectly formatting this, I'm not well versed in wiktionary ways.

Kept. See archived discussion of May 2008. — This unsigned comment was added by Connel MacKenzie (talkcontribs). 15:02, 3 June 2008 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Usage example[edit]


"It began in 2003 when the British tech writer Danny O’Brien, frustrated by his own lack of focus, polled 70 of his most productive friends to see how they managed to get so much done; he found that they’d invented all kinds of clever little tricks—some high-tech, some very low-tech—to help shepherd their attention from moment to moment: ingenious script codes for to-do lists, software hacks for managing e-mail, rituals to avoid sinister time-wasting traps such as “yak shaving,” the tendency to lose yourself in endless trivial tasks tangentially related to the one you really need to do."

--Gwern 20:00, 12 June 2009 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Pictorial example[edit]

Here is an animated GIF clip demonstrating yak shaving from the TV sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. In it, the kitchen light is out, so Hal checks the light bulb. It needs replacing, so he goes to get a new bulb. In doing so, he notices the shelf wobbles, so he goes to get a screwdriver to fix the shelf. In getting th screwdriver, he notices the drawer is squeaky, so he gets some WD-40 for it. He's out of WD-40, so he goes to the car to get some automatic transmission fluid (which works about as well), but the car won't stop. By the time his wife complains about the bulb, he has the car's engine block suspended over the car as he's doing other repairs that this investigation must have unearthed. This is not the best example of yak shaving (thus my placing it here in the discussion page) because the tasks aren't at all strict requirements for each other (they're merely distractions; he could have solved each problem in the order it was found before moving on to the next). Adam KatzΔ 20:45, 11 June 2015 (UTC)Reply[reply]

RFV discussion: May–June 2019[edit]

This entry has survived Wiktionary's verification process (permalink).

Please do not re-nominate for verification without comprehensive reasons for doing so.

Rfv-sense of "A less useful activity done consciously or subconsciously to procrastinate about a larger but more useful task." An IP removed this inspired by scepticism expressed on the talk page, but in my view at least the citation from 2002 seems to be this sense, so why not give it a chance through the usual procedure? ←₰-→ Lingo Bingo Dingo (talk) 09:15, 27 May 2019 (UTC)Reply[reply]

This book] supports both senses: procrastination and doing distantly-related-yet-necessary tasks. I’d classify this as a mention, but it strongly suggests that both senses are current.  --Lambiam 11:19, 27 May 2019 (UTC)Reply[reply]
cited, although this sense is far less common. Kiwima (talk) 02:44, 31 May 2019 (UTC)Reply[reply]

RFV-passed Kiwima (talk) 21:27, 7 June 2019 (UTC)Reply[reply]