Yak Shaving vs. Cat Waxing: A Difference of Vital Importance


The Urban Dictionary has listings for two sayings related to the removal of hair from animals. Writers are fond of the phrase “cat waxing“:

an industry term for procrastination by writers, with heavy connotation of trying to justify the activity as something that “had” to be done. Usually activities that can arguably be considered productive, such as household chores or (highly tangential) background research. The term mocks the behavior of scraping the bottom of the bucket for excuses of diminishing quality.

For example, you’d be working on your novel, but the kitchen really needs to be cleaned, then you can get back to the novel. Oh, and then the lawn needs to be mowed. And the bills really ought to be alphabetized today. And, um, the cat needs to be waxed!

Engineers have “yak shaving“:

Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you’re working on.

So, for example, you’re working on your novel, but in order to continue you really need to print it out. But the printer’s out of ink, so you need to drive to Staples. But you can’t find your keys in this mess, so you need to clean your office. But you can’t put away all this yak-shaving gear that’s cluttering things up, because you haven’t shaved the yak. So it may look like you’re shaving a yak, but really you’re working on your novel.

Setting aside the obvious connection, they both mean similar things to the writer: I’ve got my manuscript open, but I’m doing something else. There is an interesting difference, however, in terms of the utility of the task. Cat waxers are doing something arguably productive, but unrelated to the task at had. Yak shavers acknowledge they’re doing something that looks unproductive, but insist that it must be done in order to get to the task at hand.

Now, I frequently find myself doing something other than what I’m supposed to be doing: blogging about dipilating fauna, for example. It is vitally important to determine whether one is collecting cat hair or yak hair, I would argue. Partly because classifying the procrastination is a delightful form of meta-procrastinating. But also because knowing what you’re doing can help you decide whether you really ought to be doing it.

If you find yourself cat-waxing, ask yourself: Is this really the more important task? If yes: Does it really have to be done now? If yes: BEFORE you finish this task, decide what your next task will be ($10 says it’s “writing”) and stick to it.

If you find yourself yak-shaving, ask yourself: Am I really blocked by this task? If yes: Is there another way to get around this block (or the block one level or two levels up)? If not: Is this something I could do more efficiently later (combine two trips to Staples, for example, or save the office cleaning until my normal early-afternoon slump), and is there another writing task that I could make progress on in the meantime?

Now, as an exercise for the reader, I ask: Is my writing this post an example of yak shaving or cat waxing?

6 thoughts on “Yak Shaving vs. Cat Waxing: A Difference of Vital Importance

    1. Pretty sure I NEED to vacuum the cats, much as they’re shedding in this heat.

      But instead I will avoid my job by working toward ALA having that code of conduct you and @scalzi were talking about 🙂

  1. I’ve also heard people make a distinction between cat waxing and cat vacuuming, where vacuuming the cat refers to things that do need to be done (but are not writing), but waxing it is just making up tasks that don’t actually need to be done, in order to avoid writing.

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