Sharpen the Saw


Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, once said, "If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six hours sharpening the saw." The late Stephen Covey, Ph.D., in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, regarded "sharpening the saw" as one of the vital seven habits and devoted considerable discussion to it.

One of the great paradoxes of working in the Western or industrialized world is that sharpening the saw to onlookers appears to be slacking off. You mean you're not going to start cutting the tree right away? How long are you going to be working on that blade anyway?

For executives and managers, sharpening the saw could translate to extensive thinking at the outset of a project. There you are, at your desk, staring out the window. People walk by and don't regard you as doing too much. Nevertheless, the time you spend staring out your window may prove to be the most important interval in the future success of the project!

Doomed to Premature Action

"Don't just sit there, do something" was a familiar refrain in the second half of the 20th century. To be an effective executive often necessitates reversing the slogan: "Don't just do something, sit there."

The reflexive decision to take action prematurely dooms many managers. Conversely, taking time to simply sit and reflect, or sharpen the saw if you will, often results in your ability to proceed at an accelerated pace once you determine the most effective and efficient path toward the desired results.

To this day, people have all types of gadgets, equipment, toys, games, electronic devices and appliances that they know how to use only partially because they have never read the instructions. No, typically there aren't case-specific, printed instructions as to how many a project ought to proceed. Instructions in this context represent the background materials you can conjure up: reading materials, reports, data, memos and anything that is applicable to the campaign at hand.

Don't be like the fellow who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions. Slow down, proceed at a measured pace for as long as you can, and give the project its best chance of succeeding. The pace will start accelerating soon enough because you exist in the real world in a real organization with pressing challenges.

For some people, constant disruption is the norm. For others, even those assigned to manage very delicate projects, various sponsors, advocates and well-wishers who ought to know better are the worst offenders. No matter how you strive to clear away time and space for yourself, undoubtedly you have other responsibilities, tasks and demands for your time and attention. Disruption is a regrettable fact of life in every workday.

Working in the Background

Assimilation is the process of adapting a new idea to a process already in progress. Assimilation as used here means directly and indirectly absorbing knowledge near or away from the source.

The process of assimilation tends to work even in less than ideal circumstances. When you immerse yourself in the intricate details of a project and it becomes your major, if not single, focus, miraculously your brain keeps contemplating issues and working on problems. Even when you are distracted from the work at hand or temporarily pulled off a campaign, the knowledge processing can continue.

At the start of a campaign, when you have a vast array of project materials before you, things might seem overwhelming. Yet, as you pore through them, even large volumes of material don't seem quite so intimidating. You are beginning to assimilate what you are taking; that is, making a structure and a logical order out of the information.

Much of the information you encounter is duplicated, so that helps to cut down the pile. Some of it doesn't apply at all, and therefore it can easily be recycled. Some of the insights are worth gleaning once, but don't necessarily need to be noted again. Some material clearly relates to the initiation of a project, some to the middle and some to the end. So, it is easy enough to separate items into piles.

Working While You Sleep

Over time, you become a master of the information domain you have assembled. You reflect on it; you talk to others about it; you look up other things on the Internet and soon you find yourself engaged in the topic material.

When you go home for the evening, whether or not you take work materials with you, your brain keeps working on the project. Even when you are relaxing or engaging in a leisure activity, the process of germination is at play. Sometimes called the eureka effect, germination is the continuing mental activity that your brain undertakes, often in the background to some other present activity, which enables you to gain insights that don't tend to emerge in the office or when you focus directly on the subject matter. People often report that going away for a weekend, having a short trip or having an extended vacation works wonders on their abilities to develop new perspectives on projects back in the office.

Can you rush through assimilation and germination? Perhaps. The eureka effect occurs when you have a breakthrough idea at a time when you seemingly weren't focusing on the issues leading up to the idea. Suddenly, when arising from sleep or taking a shower, seemingly disjointed elements of the project come together. A path emerges or solution becomes evident.

Copyright © Jeff Davidson

About the Author
Jeff Davidson

Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC, is the internationally recognized expert on work-life balance and holds the registered trademark from the USPTO as the "Work-Life Balance Expert"®. Delivered with passion, Jeff has offered his cutting edge, hands-on strategies for a balanced career and a balanced life to audiences worldwide. He is a five-time state winner of the U.S. Small Business Administration's "media advocate of the year" award. Jeff's breakthrough books and articles have made him a favorite, repeat interview subject of USA Today, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, and the Career Weekly of the Wall Street Journal. Jeff can be reached via his web site at

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