Take the 2-minute tour ×
Programmers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The wiktionary has two different definitions:

  1. Any apparently useless activity which, by allowing you to overcome intermediate difficulties, allows you to solve a larger problem.
  2. The actually useless activity you do that appears important when you are consciously or unconsciously procrastinating about a larger problem.

This post defines it as:

yak shaving is what you are doing when you're doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you're supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you're doing to the original meta-task.

I personally prefer the final definition because it contains the word "fiddly" which I think perfectly describes a typical yak shaving task.

What is the best definition you've come across or can provide?

share|improve this question
2  
The post you link to has it right. When you're supposed to be doing laundry but end up shaving a yak instead, through a perfectly reasonable-seeming series of events. If it escalates negatively, you get this comic... –  Alex Feinman Jan 7 '11 at 21:46
4  
I need to implement a search on a new entity in my application. I already have a pretty general search on another entity type and would like to reuse some of that, but I have to refactor it to generalize it. Unfortunately, there is a dependency on an enum that is specific to the old entity, so I needed to find a way to generalize a Java enum. I did a Google search to look for strategies to accomplish that and wound up at StackOverflow. I had something in my inbox, I opened it and happened to see an interesting question on StackExchange and now I'm reading about (and writing about) Yak Shaving. –  jhericks Jan 8 '11 at 4:17
add comment

3 Answers

up vote 83 down vote accepted

Courtesy of Seth Godin:

Yak Shaving is the last step of a series of steps that occurs when you find something you need to do. "I want to wax the car today."

"Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I'll need to buy a new one at Home Depot."

"But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls."

"But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor's EZPass..."

"Bob won't lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though."

"And we haven't returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it."

And the next thing you know, you're at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.

share|improve this answer
2  
I found that one too but I'm looking for a bit more concise definition. :) –  StevenWilkins Jan 7 '11 at 22:16
9  
Why do you need a more concise definition? It's basically just a funny way to describe getting side-tracked (with the added connotation that you're potentially deluding yourself into thinking you're actually getting something important done.) –  Charles Salvia Jan 8 '11 at 0:44
    
To be precise, this definition is "Something useless you do because you were over-focussed and couldn't take a step back." –  orbfish Apr 9 '11 at 18:46
add comment

Apparently it originally derives from Ren and Stimpy episode "Gilden Yak's Shaving Day", which is a parody of Christmas.

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=gilden+yaks+shaving+day

Transcript, narrated by Ren:

Hey Kids,

There's only 5 more days until yak shaving day!

Stimpy: I can hardly wait!

So start decorating your house with disposable diapers -- and remember to stuff dad's rubber boots with cole slaw!

Then, on Gilden Yak's eve .. if you look closely .. you just might catch a glimpse of the shaven Yak on his enchanted canoe!

But don't forget to leave a heaping bowl of hot lather by the sink!

And if you've been a good boy or girl, he might leave a surprise for you to enjoy next morning!

[Yak enters bathroom through shower drain, finds sink and lather, and begins shaving, then leaves -- parody of Santa Claus]

alt text

Stimpy: Just what I've always wanted -- shaving scum! He got my letter!

This is from the pilot episode of Ren and Stimpy which aired in 1991:

Show # 1 "The Pilot Show" © 1991
Bumper: Secret Club House And Oath
SSBL: The Littlest Giant
(This is its original place in the line-up)
Bumper: Log For Girls
Bumper: Stimpy's Breakfast Tips
Big House Blues (Edited)
Bumper: Yak Shaving Day

share|improve this answer
    
I knew I had heard this term before from some old cartoon... –  Charles Salvia Jan 8 '11 at 0:42
    
Ah, Ren and Stimpy. I hadn't realized that the term yak shaving had gained a life of its own after this cartoon... –  morganpdx Jan 8 '11 at 0:53
    
@MorganPDX I am now curious how this phrase went from that to mean "getting side-tracked (with the added connotation that you're potentially deluding yourself into thinking you're actually getting something important done.)" (See Charles' comment on this answer.) –  Mark C Jan 8 '11 at 7:24
add comment

This might be the canonical answer, from Feb 11 2000:

http://projects.csail.mit.edu/gsb/old-archive/gsb-archive/gsb2000-02-11.html

"Yak shaving." Our very own Carlin Vieri invented the term, and yet it has not caught on within the lab. This is a shame, because it describes all too well what I find myself doing all too often.

You see, yak shaving is what you are doing when you're doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you're supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you're doing to the original meta-task.

Here's an 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."

And that, my friends, is yak shaving. (Not that this particular example happened to me recently or anything.)

share|improve this answer
    
Does that predate the Ren and Stimpy usage? I'm not entirely sure it does... –  morganpdx Jan 8 '11 at 0:54
    
@morgan no, clearly the MIT / Calvin Vieri usage adaptation is based on the Ren and Stimpy episode which aired in 1991. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 8 '11 at 1:00
    
And from here on, its all downhill. A sort of programmers version of "Jumping the shark": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping_the_shark You know its bad but you just can't help yourself. –  quickly_now Jan 8 '11 at 5:32
1  
Oh, the mess of open-source. I'm not bashing, but that's certainly one of its dangers. –  Mark C Jan 8 '11 at 7:18
    
Yeah, it figures that entymology of "yak shaving" would involve the word GNU. –  user16764 Aug 25 '12 at 6:23
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.