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Sharpen Your Saw to Prevent Burnout

June 25, 2021
By: Arootah
5 min read

You might have the desire to succeed but lack the energy to accomplish your goals. The unwavering determination to achieve something can blind you from seeing the bigger picture. Many of us are overachievers, wanting to bring about everything we envision and desire. We keep piling things on our plates, drowning the days in never-ending to-do lists. We may reason that putting in more time is the best way to succeed, despite proof otherwise. Hard work pays off, but the notion that more is better is a misconception. It is possible to work effectively with less effort and equal realization of goals for the long term. 

We are more effective when we hone the skills or energy needed to perform a particular task. Stephen Covey’s famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, illustrates self-care in the 7th habit section as “sharpening the saw.” He uses the anecdote of a man tirelessly sawing a tree with a dull blade. With each passing minute, the saw becomes blunter, hence making the work exceedingly less productive. When asked why he doesn’t just sharpen the blade, he responds by saying he is too busy sawing to stop. He cannot see that if he were to invest time in the fundamentals of the mission, the work would naturally become less arduous.

“We must never become too busy sawing to take time to sharpen the saw.” – Dr. Stephen R. Covey

Sometimes, we overestimate how much the body and mind can do and abuse ourselves; we are not always mindful of the strain. Therefore, it is vital to take time for rest and renewal. The body and mind will perform better with routine maintenance. For example, maintenance can prolong the lifespan of cars, motors, and appliances. Even though in the current moment, it may seem insignificant, over time, maintenance proves to extend the quality and performance of the machine. The same care and attention applies to all of us. While you might get excited or feel pressure to perform, taking the time to “sharpen the saw” reaps better results. 

What does “sharpening the saw” mean?

“Sharpening the saw means enhancing the greatest asset you have,” which, of course, is YOU. It has to do with keeping a proactive mindset. Prevention takes far less energy than repairing or healing. By implementing a procedure of sharpening ‘the saw,’ the blade will never dull. The more we refine our intrinsic tools, the more we set ourselves up for success. When we don’t rest and reset ourselves, we become less productive and face burnout. 

When you overwork a blade, you dull it

When you overwork, you may be sawing at a task but barely making a dent. This is where stepping back and reevaluating the plan is essential. Strengthening any shortcoming requires work, but the correct type of work. If you have ever seen a kung-fu movie, you may also recognize this principle in action. Though the student desires to accomplish a particular skill, the master has them repeat simple, seemingly unrelated tasks. Eventually, the student will use their knowledge of the fundamental practices to achieve the incredible feat they aspire to achieve. 

Similarly, you can be more competent at chopping down the tree by researching how to perform the task or ask experts. You could spend time sharpening the blade or doing exercises to increase strength and endurance. Though these actions are not actively cutting the tree, they contribute significantly to the endeavor’s success. Using a dull blade with no previous experience results in more hours to achieve the same results. Spend time sharpening your mind and body. These hours put into preparation will pay great dividends later on in life. The accumulation of knowledge, wisdom, and practice helps to sustain you for many years to come. 

There is a difference between sharpening the saw and putting the saw down. When you sharpen, you perform an activity that will result in better performance in the future. Putting the saw down is more like taking a break. It is similar to charging a phone battery. It is rest and recovery, equivalent to powering off a phone. Though this does not drain energy, it also does not make it more effective. 

When you attend a course, retreat, or seminar, you learn and grow while becoming inspired and motivated. These activities are like sharpening the saw. Self-study, reading inspirational literature, or practicing meditation enhances the body and mind as well. One may feel more rejuvenated by attending an event where they learn rather than watching Netflix for a week. Though rest is undoubtedly essential, it alone will not help one advance towards being more efficient or effective. 

What happens when we don’t sharpen the saw?

Dull blades are not effective. The nature of a knife is to be sharp, but with repetitive use, the edge dulls. Routinely sharpening the blade ensures that it never becomes dull. Like the knife, if you don’t sharpen your blade, you will start making mistakes and underperform physically and mentally. Rather than wait until the edge becomes dull, remain proactive and sharpen it daily. 

How can you sharpen the saw? 

Take time to sharpen the saw by setting time for self-care and rest. It is never a waste of time to take care of the body and mind. These are tools that provide the energy for you to partake in any desired action. Sometimes you have to think of the long-range rather than focusing on the immediate. While it may seem more productive to work all day and night to get something done, this will only hurt you in the future. Not taking time to rest leads to health problems that can shorten your lifespan. 

Self-care is not selfish

Take the weekends as rest days and spend time on activities away from work. Find what recharges your mind and body. Maybe this means spending the day at the spa or taking a yoga class. Find what reenergizes you and stick to it. Set healthy boundaries at night and make sure that you are getting plenty of sleep. Ensure that you are taking your breaks at work and fueling your body with healthy food and plenty of water. Find what renews you. 

Here are some activities that could potentially restore you:

  • Reading fiction books
  • Writing
  • Mentoring
  • Taking a course
  • Using a sauna
  • Getting a massage
  • Drinking tea
  • Cleaning
  • Listening to music
  • Playing music
  • Watching a movie
  • Watching YouTube videos
  • Creating art (drawing, painting, photography, etc.)
  • Engaging on social media
  • Gardening
  • Exercising
  • Walking in nature
  • Sailing
  • Driving your car
  • Catching up with family and friends

The bottom line

While you might feel pressure to perform, taking the time to “sharpen your saw” reaps better results than endlessly working. In today’s day and age, it’s common to want immediate results and gratification. Learn to step back and focus on what you need to prepare yourself to perform. Self-care enables us to achieve our goals by making a sound plan to achieve them and following through. Remember to stay proactive rather than reactive. You don’t need to work more; you need to work smarter.




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