Sharpening the saw

January 5, 2015

For many years during my early career I was immune (or certainly resistant) to business and professional development books. The thought of them repelled me; indeed many still do. The particular brand of let’s say ‘bravado’, as pedaled by the likes of Tony Robbins, leaves me utterly cold.

The later discovery then of how different Stephen Covey’s philosophy and writing is became all the more significant. And for me, that revelation came in the form of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

It is a shame how listicles – the click-bait articles that appear daily around the web (“11 awesome ideas your website must include!”) – have served to cheapen any ideas put forward in a numbered list. I say a shame, because “7 Habits…” is essential reading for any professional, and should in no way be categorised with all the poor relations in print and on the web, which mimic its title.

One of the principles Covey introduces in the book is the 7th habit, that of ‘sharpening the saw’. The phrase derives from an allegory of a wood-cutter who cuts through logs for a living, sawing all day. He’s so busy sawing he doesn’t have time to maintain the saw. With inevitable consequences.

My career has taken me in a number of directions, each of them self-initiated, and generally fuelled by a relentless fear of getting lazy, or growing complacent. Covey’s words and ideas have helped me in any number of situations over the years, and he continues to inspire. This last year though, it strikes me that I’ve fallen well short when it comes to the 7th habit.

Earlier in the year I had one of those forehead-slapping moments of clarity: the unchallengeable fact that everything we choose to do in turn means not doing something else. We have a finite amount of time available to us – as illustrated with stark clarity in a post earlier today from Chris Murphy – and if we are fortunate, then we choose how to fill that time. As competition for time and attention increases, so too does the need to differentiate between activity that helps to develop you as a person, and activity that you simply feel obliged to take part in.

As an example, after signing up in 2008 Twitter very quickly became an essential professional tool for me, a discovery engine that has without question enhanced my professional life. But at its worst Twitter becomes just a way of filling up time. “Catching up on Twitter” was at one point an additional task to fit into the day, just in case anything was missed – a link, a conversation, an announcement – that would leave me disadvantaged. Ludicrous when put as bluntly as that, but a fact nonetheless.

So it’s important then to make sure that activity is nourishing, and encourages the right kind of thinking. And overall I feel like I’ve fallen behind over the course of the last year, littered as it has been with books and articles unread, and no end of unfinished writing.  Somewhere along the line, I’ve made bad choices about what to give my time and attention to, at a time when competition for both has increased exponentially. As with everything in life, it is all about choices.

This coming year, I commit myself once again to sharpening the saw – and never letting it get to the state it fell into last year.

You can read a short passage on the 7th habit, plus the other six, here. See if they makes sense to you. It does for me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

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2 Comments

  1. It will come as no surprise that this thoroughly resonated with me. I’ve committed to return to writing this year, in an effort to engage my thinking and criticality more. One of the posts I have underway is on the time that’s lost when we find ourselves ‘lost in timelines’. We need to get that coffee, for sure, there’s lots to discuss.

    Good luck with your saw sharpening!

    Reply
    • I was never one for New Year’s resolutions. But there is certainly something about that pause for breath at the end of the year that lends itself to reflection on the 12 months just gone. Thanks for taking the time to comment Chris, and look forward to your outputs this coming year.

      Reply

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