Productivity and Self-Care: Sharpen the Saw!

I have cleared my schedule of appointments for the week and intend to use this week to “sharpen the saw.”

“Sharpening the Saw” is one of the “7 Habits” that Stephen Covey writes about.  Covey reminds us we habitually neglect many important activities, merely because they are not urgent. So the metaphor is, you have someone cutting wood with a saw, who is reluctant to pause long enough to sharpen the saw, arguing that doing so would slow down the process of cutting wood.

Of course it’s obvious that one should pause to sharpen a saw or axe every so often while cutting a great deal of wood. It’s obviously foolish to claim that there is “no time” to sharpen the saw, that cutting wood is more urgent and therefore must be the first priority. It’s obvious in this case that productivity depends on the maintenance of the tool.

But for some reason, we don’t think the same way about ourselves. We ourselves are the “tool” we keep using all day. But we don’t think that we require any maintenance or “sharpening.”  So we put off finding time to meditate, exercise, build relationships, and rest. We put off making enough space to think creatively, making enough space to allow our minds to go outside the box.

Now my goals for this 5-day work week are simple: 1. See no clients. 2. Meditate at least two hours. 3. Plan new business directions.

Today is Monday. So far, I have failed in all three of my stated goals. I have seen a consulting client for over 2 hours, I meditated no more than 30 minutes, and I have not spent any time planning new business directions. Although I have missed the mark on day 1 of 5, with 20% of the time gone, I am nonetheless succeeding in sharpening the saw, which is my central intention for the week.

Just what I’ve done with my time today (besides write this post) is not so much my point of interest for this discussion. My point rather is that, whatever my mind might say I “should” accomplish this week is quite aside from the central function of sharpening the saw. Productivity-mind, including all “shoulds,” is nothing more than cutting wood. Cutting wood is productivity-mind. The point of sharpening the saw to take a break from productivity-mind and make space for creative-mind, make space for self-care, make space for cultivating community.

The productivity-oriented mind will always rebel against this creation of space, this devotion of time to sharpen the saw. And yet sharpening the saw remains no less important for all the self-critical, fear-based thoughts that it may stir up.

Whether you take a week, a day, or just an hour, consider taking some time to sharpen the saw.

Here’s how I suggest you do it:

1. Don’t consider yourself to be “on vacation.” In our culture, vacation often means mindlessly engaging in things that are supposed to be restful and entertaining, and may or may not be so.

2. Do take time off from your usual schedule (the cutting of wood). You must create the structure, the container, for allowing saw-sharpening to occur.

3. Set an intention to engage in saw-sharpening in whatever forms you think may be helpful for you. You may wish to make a 2 X 2 table listing activities as “important” versus “unimportant” and “urgent” versus “non-urgent,” and note carefully what you wrote in the “important but non-urgent” quadrant. Those are saw-sharpening activities.

4. Hold lightly self-critical thoughts, even those, or ESPECIALLY those that say you are “not doing it right.” These thoughts are probably based on your expectations and rigid demands of yourself, and may stand in the way of good saw-sharpening.

5. Set a few behavioral goals such as I did, and hold these lightly. I meditated only 30 minutes today, not two hours as I had originally stipulated. But that’s about 25 minutes more than I usually do in the middle of the work day. 30 minutes of meditation is quite different from 5.

6. Reflect as you go through your week, your day, or your hour of saw-sharpening. You are taking a mindful break from your routine. What do you really need in order to make space for creativity? What would serve your purposes well? Some socializing or rest might just be the ticket. Your activities need not be lofty, but they need be mindful.

7. Journal or report, in some form, what you are experiencing. Blog about it, talk about it, or just jot down some notes. Verbalizing what is happening can enhance our reflectiveness and mindfulness, and so enhance saw-sharpening.

8. If your habit is normally to talk, journal, or report on everything you do, then ignore #7 and practice taking a break from those habits. We are, among other things, cultivating flexible mind, and any suggestion I make is not likely to be helpful if it is already your usual daily habit.

9. Be aware of productivity-mind when it arises. There is no need, for example, to complete a list of 10 recommendations for your readership, when 9 would function just fine.

As Phil Oaks said, “Take it easy, but TAKE IT.”


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Filed under Leadership, Success, and the Workplace

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