in: Character, Featured, Habits

• Last updated: June 29, 2023

The 7 Habits: Sharpen the Saw

Poster by Art of Manliness about habits for sharpening the saw.

Welcome back to our series that summarizes, expands, and riffs on each of the seven habits laid out in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

Every now and then I get into funks where I feel tired, depressed, unmotivated, and pissy. On days when I’m in a funk, I’ll try to will myself to work through pure mental grit. I’ll flog my brain and body with caffeine. I’ll set Pomodoro timers and tell myself, “Just work for 15 minutes.” I’ll try all the tricks I’ve learned over the years on how to be productive.

But it never works.

In fact, I often feel crappier. I start bitching and moaning about all the stupid things and people in the world that are bugging the tar out of me.

At this point in my spiral downwards, Kate will tell me: “You should probably go take a nap. Or go for a walk outside. Or go get a massage.”

“But I don’t have time to do something like that!” I retort. “I’ve got so much to do!”

To which she invariably replies: “Well, you’re not getting anything done while you’re in your funk. You’ve just spent an hour stewing in your chair. Take care of your funk first, and then you can get back to work. By taking some time away from work in the short-term, you’ll actually be more productive in the long-term.”

She’s right, of course.

And re-reading the last chapter of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People only drove Kate’s point home even deeper for me. Habit 7 is “Sharpen the Saw,” and today we take a look at what that means, how to do it, and how taking intentional timeouts can greatly improve your performance in the game of life.

What Does It Mean to Sharpen the Saw?

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” —Abraham Lincoln

Covey begins his chapter on Habit 7 with a story that perfectly encapsulates my face-punching cycle of being in a funk, but not doing anything about it because I thought I was too busy to step away from work:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

For Covey, Sharpening the Saw is about taking the time to renew and refresh the four dimensions of our natures — physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional — so that we’re more effective in our life’s work. It’s about regularly investing in ourselves so that we can reap dividends on a continual basis. It means  working smarter, not harder. Sharpening the Saw is what 21st-century lifestyle bloggers would call “self-care,” and while that term has become overused and annoying, there’s really something to it.

Like the guy trying to fell a tree with a dull saw, you might think you don’t have time to take care of yourself. I get it. That’s how I feel when I’m in the depths of one of my funks.

But the reality is you don’t have time NOT to take care of yourself.

By taking 30 minutes to an hour a day to sharpen your metaphorical saw, you’ll be able to get more done during the rest of your waking hours, and avoid wasting time with unproductive rumination, self-flagellation, angst, fatigue, and even a descent into outright depression; I know if I flog myself too hard, for too long, and let my stress levels get too high, that can trigger the symptoms of “the black dog.” And if you want to talk about unproductive, depression sure is!

While investing time in “self-care” may seemingly curtail your productivity in the short-term, it will greatly enhance it in the long-term, as you won’t ultimately be sidelined by physical sickness, mental collapse, and just plain exhaustion.

Besides allowing you to get more done, regularly making time to take care of yourself also increases your sense of agency and effectiveness.

YOU decide what you do to sharpen your saw. It’s up to YOU to make sure you do those things. As you successfully take action on honing the unique blade of your life, you show yourself that you’re an autonomous being. What’s more, you increase your competency. As you increase your competency, you increase the influence you can have on the world outside of yourself.

So again, you really don’t have time NOT to sharpen the saw. An excuse to not sharpen the saw is an excuse for failure, burnout, and mediocrity.

The 4 Dimensions of Your Life to Sharpen: Physical, Spiritual, Mental, Social/Emotional

Covey says that when it comes to our personal lives, we should focus on four domains: physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional.

All of these dimensions are interconnected. If we feel good physically, we have mental clarity and better control of our emotions. If our social life is good, we’ll have more motivation and energy to take care of ourselves physically. And because these human domains are interconnected, it allows us to synergize them which will enable you to do more in less time (more on that below).

Not only are all the domains of life interconnected, but though the listed action steps below may impact the specific domain under which they’re categorized most directly, they’ll often influence your other domains as well; e.g., exercise can improve, and can be intentionally used to improve, not only your physical life, but your mental, emotional, and even your spiritual life too.

1. Physical

Sharpening the blade of physicality ensures your body has the strength and vigor it needs to take on life’s demands. If you’re tired and sick all the time, you’re not going to be very productive, no matter how much you work.

So make taking care of your body a priority in your life. At a minimum focus on:

  1. Exercising
  2. Eating right
  3. Getting enough sleep each night

Those three things can go a long, long way in keeping you physically sharp, so begin there and make them non-negotiables.  

Once you’ve got a handle on those three areas, start exploring other ways to hone the blade of physicality: naps, saunas, cold showers, massages, reducing caffeine consumption, etc. Experiment with different “protocols” and see what makes you feel your best.

I want to reiterate that this stuff doesn’t have to take much time. If all you have is 30 minutes a day to work out, then do 30 minutes of bodyweight exercises. If you have a lunch break, take a 20-minute power nap. Don’t think you have to spend a lot of time on this stuff to get significant benefit from it.

2. Spiritual

The spiritual domain generates your sense of purpose in life. It’s the core of who you are and why you do what you do. Failure to sharpen this blade can leave you feeling cynical, listless, and burned out.

It’s easy to neglect our spiritual life because it’s, well, spiritual. Concrete day-to-day stuff takes up so much of our attention that the more ethereal strands of spirituality just get pushed aside. But eventually, the neglect catches up to you. It happens when you’re lying in bed scrolling through Instagram wondering “What am I doing with my life?” or when you lose your job or find out a family member has cancer. Those are the moments when having a sense of purpose, a solid foundation of values, comes in handy. Spirituality can ultimately be just as “practical” as any other area of your life.

Keeping your spirit in shape is very much like keeping your body in shape; just like you can’t expect to jump into a marathon without any training, if you want your spiritual blade to be honed whenever you need it, you need to commit to sharpening it each day.

How do you train your soul? Through habits and spiritual disciplines like:

I really like the sentiment expressed by Martin Luther: “I have so much to do today, I’ll need to spend another hour on my knees.” While you don’t necessarily need to spend a whole hour sharpening your spiritual blade, taking a little time to do so each day can help magnify your capacity for work, and lead to a more purpose-driven, fulfilling life overall.

3. Mental

For most workers in the modern economy, the job they do is largely “mind work.” It constantly dulls their mental saw, so that doing more mental work in their leisure time — even in the form of “sharpening” — hardly seems like it will be refreshing. They just want to turn their mind off altogether, by surfing the internet or watching TV. But as Winston Churchill wisely observed, rejuvenation can be found in a change to one’s activity, rather than the cessation of it:

“Change is the master key. A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it . . . the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts. It is not enough merely to switch off the lights which play upon the main and ordinary field of interest; a new field of interest must be illuminated . . . It is only when new cells are called into activity . . . that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.”

This is to say that the best way to rejuvenate your dulled-down mind is not to turn it off, but to give it something different to think about than what it usually grinds through at work. Not only will this fresh mental fare stimulate unused parts of your brain, it can give you insights and ideas that can loop back into your professional success.

Below are a few suggestions on how you can fuel your brain’s recovery and sharpen the mental blade:

4. Social/Emotional

We are social animals. While it’s true some of us are introverts, even introverts benefit from rubbing shoulders with other human beings. Several studies have found socializing can help reduce stress and curb depressive feelings. What’s more, interacting with other human minds is a way to learn new ideas and refine our own. Socializing synergizes with sharpening our mental blade.

A few suggestions on sharpening the social saw:

Though Covey lumps together the emotional domain with the social domain, I think they can be treated separately; emotional balance is so important, it ought to be a distinct area of focus and awareness, for when your emotional life is in order, everything else in life seems to hum along, even when there are hiccups.

Here a few suggestions on sharpening your emotional blade:

How to Find Time to Sharpen the Saw

Most people know what they need to do to take care of themselves. The trick is to actually do it! Below are a few suggestions that I’ve successfully implemented in my life to ensure I sharpen my saw on a regular basis:

Make Sharpening the Saw a “Big Rock.” We talked about Big Rocks in our article on putting first things first. A big rock is an item that you put in your calendar first. You then schedule everything else around that item. For most people, self-care isn’t a Big Rock. They only do it if they have time. Here’s the rub: if you don’t make sharpening the saw a priority in your life, it will never happen.

So as you plan your week, block out time for your sharpening the saw activities as part of your Big Rock calendaring. And then here’s the trick: don’t compromise on it. If a conflicting activity comes up during your week (that’s not a life-threatening emergency), just say “Sorry, I already have plans for that time. Does another time work?”

You have to protect your sharpening the saw time. And if you ever start to feel guilty or bad that you’re saying “No” to people so you can focus on “me time,” remind yourself that your “me time” will allow you to be more effective in the things to which you’ve already said “Yes.”

What can you via negativa out of your life? If you feel like you absolutely have no time for sharpening the saw, maybe it’s time to look at your life to see what you can “via negativa” out of it. What can you stop doing that will free up more time for yourself? Maybe you’re wasting too much time on the internet or your smartphone? Maybe you’re watching too much TV? Maybe you’ve got some obligations that aren’t serving your goals?  Find those things and eliminate them or at least reduce the amount of time you spend on them. Live simply.

Start small. In The 7 Habits, Covey recommends you spend an hour a day on sharpening the saw activities. If you don’t have an hour, do what you can. If you only have 10 minutes, use that. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

Synergize! Take a lesson from Habit 6 and find ways to synergize your sharpening the saw activities. For example, you can combine renewing your mental and physical capacities by listening to a podcast (shameless plug: subscribe to ours!) while you’re running. You can combine mental and social/emotional renewal by attending a community lecture with a buddy.

When life gets hard, sharpen the saw. When the friction in your life moves from healthy to debilitating, and things just feel crappy, sharpen the saw. Instead of trying to plow through the resistance, take an hour to decompress so you can come back at it with renewed energy. I’ve gotten better about taking time to sharpen the saw whenever I get in a funk. Instead of saying “I don’t have time to take care of myself!” I take a nap, or go for a walk outside, or meditate, or go to the sauna (though I work out in my garage, I joined a $10-a-month gym just for this purpose; it’s been money well spent for me). Even taking 30 minutes to do those things is enough to get me out of my funk and get me back in the saddle. Action always beats bitching about how terrible everything is.

7 Habits Series Wrap-Up

I hope you enjoyed reading this exploration of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as much I enjoyed writing it. Re-reading this classic personal development book provided some new insights for myself, but more importantly, reminded me of principles that I need to work on implementing in my life to a greater extent.

If you haven’t read The 7 Habits, I highly recommend you pick up a copy for your personal library. If you’ve read it already, re-read it. You’ll be surprised by how much you’ll learn about how to be more effective in every area of your life.

Be sure to listen to my podcast with Stephen’s son about his father’s famous principles: 

Read the Whole Series

  1. Be Proactive, Not Reactive
  2. Begin With the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win/Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  6. Synergy (Beyond the Eye-Rolling Buzzword)
  7. Sharpen the Saw

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