One of my favorite terms for my day-to-day work life is “yak shaving,” and I’m saddened that so many people have not heard of it when I say it. “What are you doing today?” I’m asked. “Shaving yaks,” I reply.
Coined at MIT as part of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), it’s described well in Jeremy Brown’s archived email:
You see, yak shaving is what you are doing when you’re doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you’re supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you’re doing to the original meta-task.
Similarly, the Jargon File has it as:
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.
Seth Godin has a great example, involving actual yaks. For me, my days lately are excellent examples, as I cannot move forward on some of my work until a dozen loose ends are cleaned up. I can’t clean some of those loose ends up without other people’s help, and they can’t help me until they’ve solved some complex problems of their own, with their own set of yaks to shave. So I end up helping them, working on all manner of other stuff not directly related to my stated job, except for the giant string of dependencies that will ultimately make it possible to actually do my own job. Such as upgrading to VMware vSphere 5 or being better prepared for disaster recovery.
 Mr. Godin, as is typical, also has another message which should be heeded by techs, too: “The minute you start walking down a path toward a yak shaving party, it’s worth making a compromise. Doing it well now is much better than doing it perfectly later.” He’s a marketer, but many of his thoughts apply equally well to IT guys, especially in the realms of time management, productivity, and customer service. It’s worth taking a few minutes to read what he has to say.