Know When to Stop Shaving the Yak

If you’re around my age, you might remember Phil Hartman’s “Anal Retentive” character from the ’80’s and ’90’s. He had a classic skit called “The Anal Retentive Chef” that spawned a whole series — “Anal Retentive Carpenter,” “Anal Retentive Fishing,” and the like.

The joke was always the same — he starts off with a great goal, like “Today we’re going to make a pepper steak!” but then he has to back up a step because something’s “not right”, like the bell peppers aren’t chopped evenly, and then THAT’s not right, so he has to back up again, and by the end, instead of making a pepper steak, he’s cleaning the kitchen cabinets.

His intentions are good — “wanting to get things right,” but he gets lost in a near-fractal descent of tasks in the pursuit of “perfection.” He’s traded away accuracy for precision, and an inability to declare that something is “Good Enough” keeps him from ever actually making anything.

Hi, I’m Glenn, and I’m Overly Meticulous

I do this ALL THE TIME. I did it this morning — I needed to schedule an interview for the Director of Engineering position. So I open the email and read the list of available times. I want to schedule this interview, but first I need to… up Greenhouse and confirm that the candidate’s in the right stage. But it’d be better to use Greenhouse’s internal confirmation workflow for the interview, so I need to bring that up. But I don’t like how the template email reads, so I make some edits. Which gets me thinking about how we should really refresh all the email template messaging. Which gets me thinking how I’m not really happy with the interview workflow in general for this role, and I should re-work THAT so the new email templates will align with it better. Which gets me thinking how I don’t like the way Greenhouse keeps interview kits in small, fragmented pieces, and I REALLY want to have a comprehensive end-to-end definition of the interview process for each job in a readable format, so maybe Confluence is the right place for that. Which gets me thinking how the Recruiting/HR/People space in Confluence has grown a lot of weeds and dead content, and could use a good sprucing up, which gets me thinking how there’s probably a few other spaces in Confluence that need attention….

….What was I supposed to be doing, again? Right — book an interview. Now it’s 11:30. What happened?

All those other things are good and valuable, but they’re not THE MOST IMPORTANT THING RIGHT NOW. Sometimes, I need to shut off all the “Keep things neat and tidy/If it’s not a right angle it’s a wrong angle” thinking that runs in my head all the time, and just DO the value-adding task in front of me.

In software development, this phenomenon is has a name – we call it “yak shaving”. Seth Godin has a great post about it.

Permission to Forget

So what do I do when I get myself bogged down like this? Well the first step is to get real explicit about what has to get done, and what could get done. Then I write them down in separate lists, and check off all the items in the “Have to” list. Then I take a look at the “Could” list, and ask myself if I have time to do it now. If not, I give myself permission to forget — and I can do that, because, even if I forget, my notes haven’t. So when the need comes back up again, or when I get back to my next planning cycle, I can look at all the “Could” plans, and start deciding which of them need to be done.

Balancing M&O

My Dad was a logistics officer in the Marine Corps, and he would remind me often of one his favorite maxims from when he ran the motor pool — “There’s a balance between maintenance and operations, and it isn’t always the same.”

Operations are all those things you have to do now to get things done.

Maintenance is all those things you need to do soon, so that you can get things done in the future.

Dad’s point was — you can’t just run Operations full-tilt all the time, and you can’t spend all your time doing Maintenance. You have to do an appropriate amount of both, and you’ll do each of them better if you separate them to clear, separate times and activities. So I try to keep clear, when I’m about to shave a yak — is this M time, or O time, and which one did I mean for it to be?

(And yes, I wrote this up instead of booking that stupid interview. I’m going right back to it, I swear.)

Categories: Productivity


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