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April 21, 2021

Sharpen the Axe

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We can work as hard as we want to make progress on something, but that doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to produce anything meaningful. It's not enough to work hard, you also need to be working specifically in the right way so that your hard work is actually effective. This probably isn’t new to you, you’ve heard the expression “Work smarter, not harder” before, but I want to make this a bit more tangible by sharing an additional quote by Abraham Lincoln - “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

If your task is to cut down a tree, you could put a bunch of effort into swinging a dull axe that hardly makes any progress. Sure, you’ll get more swings in, but when it comes to cutting the tree down your effort yields minimal results. If you invest the time instead in being more efficient, helping your tools and effort to be more effective, then you’re more likely to cut the tree down but with less physical work. 

It’s a great concept, but then that leads to the next question - How do you sharpen the saw? You invest in building systems. You take an extra 20 minutes to write out your protocol so that you can duplicate the activity exactly how you need it to be done. You prepare your environment in a way that’s conducive to the behaviors you want to do. You’re clear on the task, why the task matters, and why other things should be avoided so you can stay focused. That’s sharpening the axe. That’s fitting more than 6 hours worth of time into two hours. And it’s all possible because you’ve taken time to prepare and optimize.

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