Yak Spotting

About 15 years ago, I first put a post-it note on my monitor with a prompt that I found incredibly useful. Over the years, I’ve used it a lot personally, to the point where I wrote scripts to randomly send notifications reminding me about it once my brain got used to the note and started ignoring it. The post-it said, “Why are you doing this?”

As an engineer, it’s easier to spot when you’ve been sucked into a yak shaving session. We actually have a term for it! Someone has been battling a flaky test for a couple of days or getting webpack to play nicely. The thing about yak-shaving is that sometimes we end up spending way more time on something than it is worth. For example, that flaky test might never give back value that’s worth two engineer days. Had you known in the first place, you might have decided to just delete it.

It is not as straightforward to spot yak-shaving sessions in leadership positions. When coaching leaders to form their own operating system, this is one of the key skills we address. Just like in your laptop’s operating system, you need to utilize preemptive scheduling: the act of interrupting an executing task. Learn to spot when you’re starting to go down a rabbit hole and consider: why am I doing this? Is this worth it? Should I be doing something else? Should someone else do this? Does this even matter?

Intentionality Tuning

This works both ways. First, we might not notice when we’re shaving a yak for much longer than it is worth our while. Intentionality here is about noticing that and realizing that something is not worth the investment. For example, I often see leaders getting dragged to discussions over processes and procedures that will not actually matter or teams spending days working on an edge case of a feature that Product will probably be able to dismiss.

The other side of the coin is about not spending enough time on some things. Consider areas where you just “wing it.” The most trivial examples would be organizations where no one comes to one-on-ones prepared, making them casual chitchats without any growth impact. Another example would be trying to outsource some responsibilities that should really be solved in other ways. Getting outside help might be helpful for treating the symptoms but not for curing the root cause.

Start regularly assessing your day-to-day and use this prompt. A post-it, a widget on your phone’s home screen, or something else to make you actively think. This is leadership mindfulness that can take you to the next level. Try it.