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Sharpen the saw – the most fundamental productivity advice ever

Sharpen the saw and put down the saw
Blaz Kos
13 minute read

The greatest killers of productivity and satisfaction in life are illness, injury, depression, lethargy, and burnout. That means the greatest asset you have in life is you - which includes your energy levels, working and earning capacity, competences, daily motivation and so on.

Taking care of your greatest asset - you, namely by preserving and enhancing your own agency, is the main philosophy behind the motto “Sharpen the Saw”. When we talk about “the saw” or your capability to perform, there are two different important concepts to consider.

The first one is to “put down the saw” which means taking enough time to rest and recover. 

The second is to “sharpen the saw” which represents taking good care of yourself and constantly investing in your development to keep improving and growing. 

Let’s take a closer look at both concepts.

Sharpen the saw – take a balanced approach to life

The term “sharpen the saw” comes from a story about two foresters

One sunny day, a long time ago, a young forester and an older, more experienced forester, were cutting down trees. The young forester suggested they see who could fell a tree faster. The older forester agreed, and so they began. 

After an hour or so of hard work, the older forester took a break. It was quite a surprising act to the younger forester, since they were in the middle of the competition. But during the break the older forester recovered his strength, and even more importantly, he sharpened his saw.

With his energy levels recharged and a much sharper blade, he managed to overtake his competitor and fell the tree first. It was an important lesson for the younger forester - that it’s better to work smart than hard, and to make sure you stay sharp in business.

Sharpening the saw was popularized as the 7th habit in the very popular book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey. So, never forget to sharpen the saw and put yourself first. And there are so many different ways you can invest in yourself.

In essence, they can be broken down into four levels: 

  • taking care of your body (the physical dimension), 
  • mind (mental dimension),
  • heart (emotional dimension) and 
  • soul (spiritual dimension). 

Taking care of all four levels is about living a balanced life that brings the best long-term results.

1. Take good care of your body

It all starts with the physical body. Maybe you are familiar with the Latin phrase “Mens sana in corpore sano” which translates to “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. 

The body is a vessel of our agency and taking good care of our body is the most basic way of taking good care of ourselves.

There are five main ways to take care of your body:

  1. Groom yourself well
  2. Get enough sleep (at least 7 hours every day)
  3. Exercise regularly (at least three times per week)
  4. Eat healthy
  5. Put limits on work hours and stress

Exercise is especially important. There are so many clinically proven benefits of exercise, from decreasing the chances of getting ill to preventing cognitive decline, to having more energy, and much more.

 And exercise doesn’t have to be hard work. Taking a 30-minute walk a few times per week can do wonders.

2. Take good care of your emotions

Emotions give color to our lives, and taking good care of our emotions can bring additional brightness and vividness to our daily existence. 

On the other side, if we don’t take care of our emotions, life can quickly become dull, gray, and depressed.

There are many things we can do to be emotionally fulfilled in our lives. Here are a few examples:

  • Build strong relationships
  • Have deep and meaningful conversations
  • Make love
  • Give service
  • Meditate
  • Find things to be grateful for every day
  • Do at least one thing you enjoy per day
  • Learn to manage negative thoughts and emotions better with cognitive-behavioral therapy

You can’t be at your peak productivity if you don’t feel good about yourself and your work. Reflecting on your feelings, connecting with people, being grateful, expressing yourself - all that leads to better emotional health. 

It’s also important to learn how to process emotions in a healthy way, especially the negative ones. Since emotions are closely connected to our mind and way of thinking, this layer also includes managing negative thoughts properly and staying optimistic in life.

Improving emotional awareness and equipping ourselves with emotional - management tools (together often referred to as emotional intelligence) can be one of the greatest investments one can make.

3. Take good care of your mind

We live in a knowledge-based society. The most sought after and best paid skills are intellectual in nature, and so the best way to improve our earning capacity is to acquire new competencies. 

That leads us to the third layer of sharpening the saw, which represents taking good care of our mind and brain.

Through taking care of our physical body and emotions, we are already doing good things for our brains. Exercise is one of the best preventive measures for cognitive decline, and taking care of our emotions declutters our mind and leaves more bandwidth for productive and creative thoughts.

But that’s not enough. In today’s fast changing world, constant, life-long learning is a must. If we don’t constantly improve ourselves and acquire new knowledge and competencies, we can quite quickly fall behind. 

So, it makes sense to constantly invest in hard skills (domain knowledge in your industry), soft skills, tech knowledge, our creative capacities, and so on. 

There are so many ways to expand your mind and intellectual capabilities, and it makes sense to create a priority list with an analysis of which skills to invest in to advance the most in your business or personal life.

There are many different ideas how to take good care of your mind, such as:

  • Read a book or listen to audio books
  • Do an online course
  • Do something completely new
  • Do brain exercises
  • Brainstorm ideas or visualizing your goals
  • Create something artistic
  • Plan, write or teach a topic
  • Learn to program or brush up on your tech skills

4. Take good care of your soul

Last, but not least, the final layer of sharpening the saw is about taking care of your soul, meaning cultivating the notion that life is a gift, being connected to your deepest self, finding and realigning your life purpose, giving back to the community, being a good person, and helping others less fortunate than you.

It’s about feeling a sense of self-actualization, belonging to something bigger than yourself and living a better world behind, no matter if you are religious or not. 

Here are some examples of activities that can help you take good care of your soul:

  • Write down your life mission
  • Contribute to a good cause
  • Donate time or money or contribute to the local community
  • Pray
  • Forgive someone
  • Coach other people
  • Keep a journal and reflect on your life

Taking good care of your soul helps you nurture meaning in your life. More than this, it gives you a sense that we are all somehow connected and guides you to the understanding that what you give, you usually get back. 

And that makes it a complete “win-win” situation, since you can improve your own life by improving the lives of others.

Put down the saw – take enough rest to recover

Besides sharpening the saw, there’s one more important concept to understand when we talk about taking good care of yourself and living a balanced life. It’s called putting down the saw. 

Research has shown time and time again that your productivity declines if you don’t take regular time off. You might feel like your productivity levels stay the same no matter how much you work, but they don’t. 

You start making bad choices, you become much more anxious and impatient, your happiness levels drop, and you end up on the fast track to a burnout. You just can’t stay highly productive without proper rest and recovery.

This is how much time off is a bare minimum

If you are a workaholic (an A-type personality), choosing work over yourself over and over again, you might be asking yourself, “How much time off do I really need? What is the bare minimum? Here is the answer:

First of all, you need to get 7 - 8 hours of sleep (there are some rare exceptions, who can function with 5 -6 hours). Without proper sleep, your brainpower, physical fitness, mental bandwidth to make smart choices - everything goes down. In a big way. 

There’s very solid research on how sleep deprivation causes great physical and mental harm, so, go to sleep early, and make sure you get the right amount. No excuses. It’s not that hard. Turn off the TV and go to sleep at 11 PM at the latest.

Then we have daily breaks. After every block of focused work lasting from 1 to 2 hours, you should take 5 – 10 minutes off. You can use the Pomodoro technique to properly disperse breaks during the working hours. 

Stretch, practice deep breathing, browse funny photos of cats, take a power nap - it doesn’t matter. Just make sure you don’t only work, work, work, but also take some time to rest. That being said, make sure your little 10-minute pauses don’t turn into hour-long time‑wasting activities.

Next, if you organize yourself properly, you should be able to finish all the important tasks in 6 to maximum 10 working hours, depending on your current life situation and goals. Put a cap on how much you work on a daily basis.

An all-nighter from time to time won’t hurt you, but working long hours for months or even years on end is a sign of workaholism that only leads to depression, anxiety and a poor quality of life. Put a cap on 9, maybe 10 hours of work per day, but make sure these hours are really productive.

And then we have the real time off. Take at least one guilt-free hour of play every day. No work, no chores, nothing. Just play. 

Next, take one day in a week completely off. No technology, no tasks, no meetings or even thinking about work. Then take an extended weekend off, for four days or so, every quarter. 

And last but not least, one or two big holidays per year, lasting at least a week - a whole week without any work to really fully recharge.

If you follow these rules, your long-term productivity will never decline, and there’s a good chance you will avoid any burnout whatsoever. That’s really important, especially if you are a workaholic or type-A personality. 

If you are, don’t look at it as rest, but as a recovery period. If you don’t get adequate recovery time, your productivity will slowly decrease in the long run.

To summarize, the general recommended time to take off is at least:

  • 10 - 15 minutes after a 1 – 2 hour work block,
  • one day per week,
  • one extended weekend (4 days) for every quarter and
  • an additional two full-time weeks (14 days) a year.

If you have problems taking breaks frequently enough, you have to systematically plan them. You can set alarms for breaks if necessary, or buy a Pomodoro timer. You can also timebox breaks in your calendar. 

The worst thing you can do is to take no breaks at all. If you don’t take breaks, sooner or later your “saw” gets used up, and your work is not as productive as it could be anymore.

What to do during breaks - the difference between active and passive breaks

There are two ways you can take a break – an active and a passive version. A passive break means putting down the saw. In other words, doing nothing that takes any real physical or mental effort. You hibernate in a way, and recharge your batteries. 

Examples of passive breaks are taking a nap, sitting in a chair and enjoying rays of sunlight on your face, talking a really easy walk, etc..

The second way to take a break is a more active one. An active, smart break means sharpening your saw in one way or another and exploiting breaks to be more productive during your work time. 

Examples of active breaks could be reading a book, going for a more intense walk, watching an educational video, brainstorming ideas, stretching, cooking yourself a healthy meal, and so on.

When you proactively plan your breaks, you have to decide how many active and passive breaks you will have. This can be done based on how mentally or physically demanding your daily tasks are, the current goals you have in your life, and other key factors.

For example, doing exercise can be “sharpening the saw” if we do intense cardio to stay fit. But it can also be “putting down the saw” if we go for a slow walk in a nature to recharge our energy levels. Sometimes you need the first one, sometimes the latter.

So, the idea is to consciously decide on the number of breaks you will take on a certain day and proactively plan which enjoyable things you’ll do during the time off. 

It must be the right combination of active and passive breaks, i.e. the right combination of sharpening and putting down the saw. You can help yourself plan your active and passive breaks with the list below.

Examples of passive breaks – low physical or cognitive activity (putting down the saw):

  • Taking a power nap
  • Sitting or lying down and doing nothing
  • Listening to music
  • A slow walk in nature
  • Watching a movie or TV show
  • Easy video games

Examples of active breaks – sharpening the saw during an active break:

  • Moderate exercise, stretch or yoga
  • Walking up and down the stairs in your office a few times
  • Taking 10 deep breaths and practicing proper breathing
  • Learning something new from somebody
  • Reading, reading, reading
  • Doing brain exercises
  • Watching a documentary
  • Preparing yourself a healthy meal
  • Making a new entry in your journal
  • Drawing something or doing some other type of art
  • Learning a few new words in another language
  • Organizing or cleaning something
  • Having a deep and interesting conversation with someone
  • Meeting somebody new
  • Calling somebody you haven’t talked to in ages
  • Writing down the things you are grateful for that day
  • Planning your next trip
  • Watching an inspiring video on YouTube
  • Organizing your computer files and folders
  • Decluttering your mail inbox
  • Building your vision board on Pinterest
  • Visualizing your goals
  • Meditating for 15 minutes
  • Reading inspirational quotes
  • Doing a few eye exercises, especially if you work with a computer a lot

Examples of investing in yourself – sharpening the saw considered as work

  • Intense exercise
  • Deliberate study, learning or practice
  • Intense emotional reflection, etc.

Make sure time off is really time off

When taking an active break, make sure you don’t turn your breaks into real work, such as deliberate learning, competitive sports, or replying to emails. That’s not really recovery time. Have a strict distinction between a passive break, an active break, and real work.

If you are a productivity freak, you can also use time tracking to have better analytics on how many hours of productive work you do, and how many active and passive breaks you take during the day.

 A time tracking app like My Hours can help you understand better what to focus on during work, and how to have a balanced approach to time management.

To summarize, in your business and personal life it’s very important to sharpen the saw, but also to put it down. If other people keep improving and you don’t, you’ll fall behind. 

You have to become a lifelong learner, who always takes good care of themselves and makes constant improvements in terms of fitness, emotional wellbeing, competencies, and contributing to the world.

At the same time, your productivity will drastically decline with time if you don’t take proper rest and recovery time. You have to find the right balance between work, play and rest. That’s called putting down the saw. 

You have to tackle both to live a balanced life, and achieve peak performance and maximum success.

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