Friday, July 12, 2013

The term seems to be a relatively obscure one.  Even among fellow geeks and coworkers I seem to get a blank look when I refer to "yak shaving".  I'll tell you a little story about my day today:

I arrived at work this morning and found that some functionality on our internal CMS was timing out.  I immediately knew it must have resulted from changes to our codebase that I wrote and pushed live yesterday.  I recalled that with some requests being made to our API I would experience some odd and random timeouts.  With that thought in mind I decided that a better solution would be for requests to this particular API to be queued up and handled by a worker running on the server since the result of the API call is not important to the action being performed and can easily be handled in the background.  Fortunately this same idea relates directly with today's task of writing a worker to deal with synchronizing data in manageable chunks from our existing database to the new database we're going to be working with.  Knowing I wanted to employ the best strategies for solving this problem I started researching topics such as "advantages of workers over cron jobs" and "best practices for writing PHP workers".  After about an hour or so of research I decided that I would love to write a good blog post on the topic.  I realized that I had been meaning to set up my blog for quite some time and just hadn't taken the time to get it going.  I immediately headed over to Namecheap to get my domain registered and then I created my blog.  By this time I needed to make my way to the little boys room and assumed I would come back and immediately finish connecting my blog to the shiny new domain I purchased, however, along the way I ran into some coworkers who informed me that they were on their way to Subway since they are closing down after tomorrow due to doubled rent costs.  Obviously I had to join them and of course I also had to finish setting up my blog and create a post about yak shaving which further delayed my original task of trying to solve our task synchronicity problems.

The term "yak shaving" actually came about because of a 1991 Ren & Stimpy cartoon called "Yak Shaving Day" in which everyone spends their day doing ridiculous and useless things while waiting for a shaven yak to float by.  Yak shaving is doing activities which are either apparently useless things that lead to solving an original or larger problem or actually useless activities done while procrastinating something else.

Inspired by blog posts from zenhabits I have been wanting to gain better focus in my day-to-day activities and especially while at work.  I am a software developer and while the first form of yak shaving (apparently useless tasks leading to solutions) are a regular occurrence and are to be expected to happen, the second form can be an enormous time sucker.  I have found a number of things that can be helpful in using time more effectively and focusing better at work.  Here are two categories that come to mind:

  1. Internet Distraction:
    1. To deal with distracting websites and reading not related to my current focus I have been using Pocket to file things away for later when I have more time.  It's great because I can tag links to make it easier to find related things for when I want to research a specific topic and it helps me to keep my "too many tabs syndrome" under control (I'm still bad, just not 100+ tabs/5+ windows bad).
    2. Taking advantage of Chrome's multiple user/session support I have two sessions in separate browser windows: one for my work-related accounts and tabs and one for anything personal.  This helps more than you might think in keeping on task as long as you can keep other distractions away from your work browser window.
  2. Work Environment:
    1. I have been trying to strive for more simplicity and along with that comes a lot of decluttering.  I converted to Sublime Text many months ago for it's clean simplicity when editing code.
    2. I like music a lot.  For some time I used Spotify premium because it allowed me to listen to anything I wanted (and no distracting ads with premium).  I recently switched to Google Play Music All Access because it was cheaper and I already had a portion of my uploaded music collection on Google Play Music and this allowed me to listen to even music that none of the services has.  I have found that music allows me to focus better by keeping the ambient noise of the office away.
    3. We are an agile programming shop where I work.  We have had professional training and we try to follow the best agile methods that make sense for us.  There are a lot of tools for tracking user stories and tasks that need to be completed but we use Pivotal.  I have found that it is very effective to focus one one item at a time and we actually have a rule on our team that we are only allowed to have one story started at a time.
    4. Minimizing distraction is important.  There is a lot of wasted time when context switching and there is no such thing as multi-tasking.  While someone can do background-tasking nobody can actually do more than one task simultaneously that involves any focus or thought.  Having distractions that occur throughout your day will pull you away from your focus and train of thought and it takes time to get back to that focus.


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