Habit 7. Sharpen the saw.

Did you ever hear this story growing up?

A woodcutter strained to saw down a tree.  A young man who was watching asked “What are you doing?”

“Are you blind?” the woodcutter replied. “I’m cutting down this tree.”

The young man was unabashed. “You look exhausted! Take a break. Sharpen your saw.”

The woodcutter explained to the young man that he had been sawing for hours and did not have time to take a break.

The young man pushed back… “If you sharpen the saw, you would cut down the tree much faster.”

The woodcutter said “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. Don’t you see I’m too busy?”

[Note: this parable and its lesson date back to a time when using hand tools was much more a part of everyone’s daily experience than it is today. I spent a little time trying to think of a 21st-century analogy, and failed to come up with something more contemporary and equally compelling. Anything leap to your mind? Please share with the rest of us. Here’s a low bar for you to improve upon: PC’s tend to slow down with time. Culprits include spyware, too many active apps, new software on old hardware, Prefetch folders, the Registry, etc., etc. So you and I find work at our desks insidiously growing more arduous. We should stand down for a time, defrag our computer and take other measures…]

Anyway, here’s how Stephen Covey takes this story and applies it to his seventh habit.

“Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:

Physical: Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Social/Emotional: Making social and meaningful connections with others
Mental: Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spiritual: Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service

As you renew yourself in each of the four areas, you create growth and change in your life. Sharpen the Saw keeps you fresh so you can continue to practice the other six habits. You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you. Without this renewal, the body becomes weak, the mind mechanical, the emotions raw, the spirit insensitive, and the person selfish. Not a pretty picture, is it?

Feeling good doesn’t just happen. Living a life in balance means taking the necessary time to renew yourself. It’s all up to you. You can renew yourself through relaxation. Or you can totally burn yourself out by overdoing everything. You can pamper yourself mentally and spiritually. Or you can go through life oblivious to your well-being. You can experience vibrant energy. Or you can procrastinate and miss out on the benefits of good health and exercise. You can revitalize yourself and face a new day in peace and harmony. Or you can wake up in the morning full of apathy because your get-up-and-go has got-up-and-gone. Just remember that every day provides a new opportunity for renewal–a new opportunity to recharge yourself instead of hitting the wall. All it takes is the desire, knowledge, and skill.”

Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

A couple of notes about the metaphor/analogy.

We can’t delegate this task of sharpening the saw to others.

Diet, exercise, rest? No one else, not the most well-meaning partner, parent, or friend can take on this role on our behalf. We have to build these into our routine…or it doesn’t happen.

Social and meaningful connections with others? We’re on our own.

Lifelong learning? Up to us individually.

Spiritual? You and I don’t really have a choice to sit this one out, either. We don’t have the option to be a-spiritual, only the choice of where we’ll find ourselves on a scale ranging from dysfunctional to healthy spiritually.

Sharpening the saw applies to us individually, but it also applies to institutions.

In my experience, the person who articulated this best and in the most compelling way was Mike Hall, who worked in NOAA years ago and was one of the leading architects of the U.S. Global Change Research Program over the 1980’s and 1990’s. He would come into internal planning meetings at NOAA and draw an analogy between our agency’s participation in USGCRP and an athlete on a professional football team. “At team practice,” Mike would say, “you’ll run through the plays and the game strategy. But it’s up to each individual athlete to get himself in physical shape needed for him to do his part.” His point was that for NOAA to run with the pack on USGCRP – that is, with NASA, NSF, DoE, USGS and others – we had to have in place internally a rigorous process of strategic planning and priority setting, and an ability to execute, that would enable us to keep up. Participation in USGCRP wasn’t going to be on the basis of entitlement. He had ideas about reshaping NOAA as a whole that he never saw realized, but he did succeed in establishing within his own Office of Global Programs (as it was called at the time), housed in NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, a unique subculture that was indeed able to pull its weight in USGCRP. They were nimble. They nicely balanced – spanning in-house and extramural research. They integrated physical and social sciences. And that culture persisted a long time after Mike left, surviving name changes, leadership succession, and reorganizations. You still see it today.

All institutions – whether government, corporate, academic, or NGO – face a continual challenge to sharpen the saw. And they face that challenge at all levels – the corporate headquarters, the different business units, the university administration, the different schools, the individual centers and departments, etc.

Sharpening the saw applies to nations.

Take my home country of the United States. Its people – all 300 million of us – don’t have the luxury of looking at our current position in the world as an entitlement. We have to earn our standing anew, year-on-year. And we need to focus not on having the strongest military, or the greatest wealth, or the most comfort, but rather our continued exercise of Stephen Covey’s seven habits. As a nation, are we proactive or reactive? Do we have noble purposes and ends in mind – those values of freedom and democracy and integrity and all the rest – or do we begin by setting our sights on something less? Are we putting those first things first? And when we’re looking outward to other countries and peoples, are we thinking Win-Win? Are we seeking first to understand and only then to be understood? Are we collaborating, synthesizing? Or are we simply trying to force our approach and interests on others?

It’s not just the United States that must clear this bar. The developed countries of Europe. The BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, China. Other emerging nations from every continent. All have to pass this test just as does the United States.


Abraham Lincoln lived and died before Mr. Covey. But he knew this notion. He said,

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Let’s keep our physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual tools sharp.

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One Response to Habit 7. Sharpen the saw.

  1. Michael Cunningham says:

    Sound advice throughout.

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