Joe Bell
June 17, 2020

How to Shave a Yak

Getting distracted reinvigorated my personal and work life

We're halfway into 2020; a year of pandemic, isolation and rising social tensions. 2019 feels like a lifetime away, but just six months ago marked the end of one of the busiest and beautifully bizarre years of my life.

Six days into 2019, I spontaneously accepted a rolling contract in Tallinn, Estonia. At the time I couldn't even point to Estonia on a map and was driven mostly by the idea of waking up to a hotel buffet breakfast every morning. I loved diving headfirst into a new culture, but the brutal -20°C winter months and endless travel nightmares (cancelled flights, delayed flights and lost luggage) started to catch up to me very quickly.

A cold dark winter's day in Paukjärve (Bang Lake), Estonia

With a new contract on the horizon back in Leeds, I packed an extra sweater and headed back to Tallinn for a final 3 weeks in March. What was I going to do to make the most of this opportunity to live somewhere different? Where could I get the most cultural insight? I downloaded a dating app. One thing leads to another and there I was at the airport with a lump in my throat, saying goodbye to a woman from Bumble and a country I'd grown to love.

A few months of long-distance meant I was once again doing the very thing I was trying to avoid; spending hours of my life waiting for delayed and cancelled transport. On a fleeting visit to Tallinn, I took a shot in the dark and managed to secure a new contract with my previous client. The era of living in two time-zones was finally coming to a close!

Then it hit me. After 7 years, Leeds would no longer be my home. Questions started to flood my mind. In just 2 weeks, I had to answer:

  • What if the relationship didn't work out?

    (Rest assured, it worked out great)

  • What about my friends?
  • What about my bills?
  • Where will I buy salt & vinegar crisps?
  • How will I operate as a contractor when I'm living in another country?
  • Where will I put all my stuff?
  • How much Marmite should I take?
  • How will I find the time to figure this out when I'm working?

On Jaanipäev, I landed at my new home. With new friends, my last bag of Salt & Vinegar McCoy's and a bottle of Yellow Belly stout, I watched the 11 pm sunset mark a new chapter of my life.

The resulting six months of 2019 were a blur. A period filled with life admin, integrating into a country which has one of the hardest-to-learn languages in the world and a full-time contract. Without the opportunity for a break for almost a full year, life started draining me of any energy and caffeine I had left. I considered quitting tech altogether to be an alpaca farmer instead.

At Christmas, I let the contract come to a close, with no other work plans in the pipeline.

Setting Goals

The new year kicked off with a trip to Bali, offering some much-needed downtime and headspace. As I swam with turtles and hiked spicy mountains with my partner-in-goreng, I was reminded that life is too precious to be stuck in a toxic work environment.

Sunrise from the top of Mount Batur in Bali, Indonesia

With some cash set aside and no work lined up, what am I going to do that gives me value and purpose? What do I want to do?

With these questions in mind, I set four goals:

  1. Build a business site
    "I offer consultancy and contract services via my business. I own the domain name but currently redirect to joebell.co.uk. A business site could be a good starting point for new clients."
  2. Write a blog post
    "I've had an article idea sitting in my drafts for over 2 years, I should use this downtime to get it written and published."
  3. Financial independence
    "I should get a grip on my finances to gain income, invest early and reduce the possibility of future burnout"
  4. Make a new short film
    "Making videos is something I love but don't find the time for. I should follow-up on my last video 'Australasia' and document my move to Estonia."

Reality

After a slow first couple of weeks acclimatising from the 30°C Bali heat to the painfully dark Estonian winter, I focused on building a new work routine from the kitchen table. Starting on the business site, I began by exploring different starting points. This would continue into smaller tasks that lead to other smaller tasks and so on.

Kitchen table office, complete with make shift Macbook Pro Keyboard Replacement™

I would often find myself losing my sense of time to this chain of tasks, but in a good way. Throughout the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to escape (some of) the mental perils of lockdown and grow my skills. It was a win-win. If I found myself losing interest, I would just switch to a different goal and continue the chain of events.

At the start of March, I signed a short contract, leaving these goals to fall by the wayside. Every day I'd go on Twitter and see thought-leaders pumping out more blog articles, libraries, and technical insights in a week than I'd ever completed in my life, on top of their day job. Why couldn't I do that?

After the contract I convinced myself I wasn't doing enough, going full-speed into updating my site for a new post, with a couple of small side projects in the process; including a "Design Systems" discord server. It was in this server where someone implied I was "Yak Shaving".

Yak Shaving /jæk ˈʃeɪvɪŋ/ verb.

Performing a chain of tasks that takes you on a path away from your original objective.
e.g. "fixing a lightbulb".

Coined by Carlin Vieri Ph.D. (MIT) after watching an episode of "The Ren & Stimpy Show".

I've heard previous colleagues being referred to "Yak Shavers" in the past, almost always with negative connotations; indicating poor planning, focus and motivation.

Initially, I was taken aback by the comment, but I began to realise as much as I enjoyed my exploration time, I haven't completed any of my goals.

What had I actually achieved?

I decided to map a "tree of tasks" to find out. Each item represented a completed task or finding. Sometimes that finding would go nowhere. Sometimes it would be another task.

Had I "yak shaved" so much that I "yak shaved" a tree of tasks just to justify my "yak shaving"?

When I began to highlight "new skills" and "outputs", it became clear it wasn't all about the result but about the things I learned on the way.

That journey is represented below:

FYI: This diagram is big and best viewed on a larger screen.

Key:

  • New Skills
  • Output
  1. Build a business site
    1. Try Svelte
    2. Try 11ty
      1. Learn Nunjucks
        1. Realise I miss JSX
        2. Realise I miss TypeScript
      2. Build a blog template
      3. Product idea
        1. Build proof of concept
        2. Try Airtable as a CMS
          1. Look into Next.js getStaticProps
        3. Try Sanity as a CMS
    3. Try Tailwind
    4. Try Theme UI
      1. Settle on Theme UI
    5. Try Next.js
      1. Settle on Next.js
        1. Build a blog template
          1. Marmalade
          2. Set up MDX with custom layouts
          3. Set up tags and directories
            1. Node.js
            2. Build index pages
          4. Generate an RSS feed
            1. Node.js
          5. Generate a manifest file
            1. Node.js
          6. Layout
            1. raam
  2. Write a blog post
    1. Update site
      1. Migrate to Theme UI
      2. Fix 'system font' bug
        1. Use Google Fonts
          1. Fix async Google Fonts
            1. Another article topic?
              1. Write a tutorial
                1. next-google-fonts
            2. Migrate to Next.js
              1. Migrate from Netlify to Vercel
              2. Re-use (Marmalade)
              3. Migrate to TypeScript
              4. Optimise Images
              5. Webmentions
              6. Remove leftover Gatsby cache.
              7. Another article topic? "Yak Shaving".
                1. Draw a mind-map
                  1. Create a mind-map component
                2. Write initial draft
                  1. Feedback
                    1. Publish
    2. Extend draft from 2018
      1. Restructure
        1. Put aside
  3. Financial Independence
    1. Categorise personal and work funds
      1. Determine business runway (+ emergency salary)
      2. Choose a finance tool
        1. Try Pocketsmith
        2. Try Lunch Money
        3. Try YNAB
          1. Settle on YNAB
            1. Migrate UK records
            2. Migrate Estonia records
            3. Migrate business records
            4. Investigate multiple currency overview
              1. Build custom dashboard in Next.js
      3. Claim dividends
        1. File annual report
          1. Pay mandatory share capital
        2. Treat myself to a guitar
    2. Explore investment options
      1. Property?
        1. Must be a permanent resident to get a mortgage 😢
      2. Sustainable ETF?
        1. COVID-enduced market crash 😢
    3. Explore passive income options
      1. Build upon product idea
        1. Put aside
      2. Try Gumroad
      3. Try Stripe
      4. Try PayPal
    4. Find work
      1. Post on Twitter
        1. New Client
          1. Use Airtable as a CMS
          2. Use Next.js
          3. Use Theme UI
          4. Income!
        2. New Twitter friends
          1. Design Systems Discord Server
      2. Post on LinkedIn
  4. Make a new short film.
    1. Buy Masterclass subscription
    2. Replace broken lens mount
    3. Scout for locations
      1. Film sunrise in Tallinn Old Town
        1. Adjust technique for further filming
      2. Get a bike to go further afield
        1. Cycle 750km in 2 months

Groom Your Yak

Yes, I was a "Yak Shaver" and I didn't complete the goals I'd set out to finish, but in the process, I achieved things that made the journey worthwhile. At the time it felt like everyone else was launching their rockets and I was too busy designing the launchpad, but that extra time to invest in myself means I can launch bigger and better rockets in the future.

What I set out to achieveWhat I actually achieved
1. Build a business site1. Learned Theme UI
2. Write a blog post2. Learned Next.js
3. Financial independence3. Learned Node.js
4. Make a new short film4. Learned image optimisation
5. Learned how to use Airtable as a CMS
6. Learned how to set up Webmentions
7. Found a product idea
8. Built Marmalade
9. Built raam
10. Built next-google-fonts
11. Migrated joebell.co.uk to Next.js
12. Found a new client
13. Gained income
14. Set up a Design Systems Discord
15. Began shooting my short film
16. Found my passion for cycling
17. Settled in Estonia
18. Wrote this article

To be absolutely clear though, I'm not advocating my "strategy" will cure your burn out and rejuvenate your career. When it comes to personal work or growth, it's so easy to fall into the trap of comparison with others. It's important to remember our lives are inherently complex with different priorities.

If you're stuck in a recursive loop of tasks, consider mapping them out. What self-investments have you made? What skills have you grown? What did you learn?

Instead of focusing on what you haven't done, take a moment to appreciate the journey.

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Copyright © 2020 Joe Bell