In personal development circles the late Stephen Covey introduced the concept of ‘sharpening the saw’. It is the seventh of his classic ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ and concerns the principle of balanced self renewal. It is the one habit that encircles the other six as it makes all the others possible.

The concept comes from the idea of a man in the forest working hard to chop down a tree with a saw. He has been at it for several hours and the sweat, hard labor and exhaustion is self evident. A person comes up to him and suggests taking a few minutes to sharpen the saw so as to be more effective, to which he replies ‘I’m too busy sawing to have time to stop!’

It is rather like saying, I don’t have time to stop to get fuel for my car even though it’s running on low! Eventually if I carry on like that I am going to come to a grinding halt!

Many centuries before Covey, King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes (10:10) summarised this idea. I give the Hebrew translation below in two forms:
“If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success”
“Remember the duller the axe, the harder the work; use your head: the more brains the less muscle.”

So sharpening the saw is not necessarily just about working harder, but thinking smarter.

An important part of thinking smarter is understanding that we are whole human beings with physical, spiritual, social-emotional and mental dimensions. These four dimensions interrelate with each other and are vital if we are going to live life for the long haul. For example have you noticed when you are hungry and tired how often it seems as if everyone else is inconsiderate or incompetent! Or there is that experience of waking up at 3am with intense foreboding about a task or meeting that is coming up. In those cases it is the lack of physical renewal that is affecting other dimensions.

One of the hallmarks of modern life is how these 4 dimensions are often artificially separated from each other, being seen in isolation rather than as a whole. We are whole human beings made in the image of God with all the wonder and awe that entails. Biblical Scripture teaches that we are fundamentally broken in all 4 dimensions, but that does not preclude the possibility of transformation and renewal.

Although renewal individually in each dimension is important, the four dimensions powerfully interact with each other. So, for example, I have often been struck how after a holiday or a period of intense exercise how some of the most powerful insights or solutions to problems emerge even though I have not been thinking about them.

It is also important to remember that sharpening the saw does not come automatically. We have to deliberately go out of our way to ensure we do those activities that pour life into us while at the same time being aware of those thinks that drain us.

Here are some activities that renew me in the 4 dimensions:

PHYSICAL: swimming, walking on bright sunny mornings in areas of natural beauty.
SPIRITUAL: daily Biblical meditation, regular prayer times with family and friends, Sunday worship. At least one day a week with no work related activities to remind me that I am fundamentally not a human doing, but a human being unconditionally loved by God because of what Christ has done.
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL: family meal times, deep mutually enriching friendships, inspiring and uplifting movies, playing with my children.
MENTAL: reading and listening to great thinkers and writers; sharing and teaching at a deep level.

On the other hand, there are some activities and situations I know I need to avoid as they drain the life out of me:
– technical details
– negative critical people
– sensual material distractions
– empty conversation
– feeling rushed.

So how about you?
How do you build in sharpening the saw into your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routines?
What are the activities you need to start doing on a regular basis?
What is it you need to avoid?
Do share your comments, observations and insights below