Monday Mornings with Madison

Making Time to Sharpen the Saw

Word Count:  1,399

Estimated Read Time: 5 ½  min.

Most people are familiar with the late Stephen Covey’s famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.   First published in 1988, the business / self-help book offered an approach to being more effective in achieving goals by aligning oneself to what Covey referenced as the “true north” principles.  He saw those seven principles as universal and timeless.  Later he added an eighth principle.  By far his best-known book, Covey’s Seven Habits have sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages worldwide. The audio version became the first non-fiction audio-book in U.S. publishing history to sell more than one million copies and has now sold over 1 ½ million audio copies to date.  More recently, Covey’s son wrote and published a simplified version of the book titled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens.  The Seven Habits philosophy lives on with Millennials and iGens.

So why was this book so successful?  Because Covey’s approach helped people shift their focus to habits that improved their personal and professional lives by making them more “effective”.  At its core, Covey believed that people were meant to evolve from dependence to independence and, ultimately, to interdependence.  And for a person to remain truly effective, he had to invest in balanced self-renewal.  Covey called it “sharpening the saw.”  He said that to be effective, one needed to preserve and enhance his or her greatest asset:  the self.  So, as we approach the 30th anniversary of this philosophy, what does saw sharpening look like today?  And what happens when we sharpen the saw?

Preserving and Enhancing Oneself

The concept of self-improvement was not new even in 1988, when Covey first published The Seven Habits.   What was different was that Covey saw the need to preserve and enhance all areas of oneself simultaneously.  He believed in a balanced program of self-renewal which touched on all four areas of life:  physical, social/emotional, mental and spiritual.   Most people are good at improving one or two areas at a time, but maintaining all four areas in balance is the challenge.

For instance, college students are usually focused on improving their mental and physical selves during that time of their lives.  They spend a lot of time learning, reading and writing.  And they are often active in sports and activities such as running, bicycling, and swimming.   They might even spend time developing their social skills.  But most college students aren’t as invested in their emotional and spiritual growth.  On the other hand, senior citizens spend a lot of time later in life improving their social, emotional and spiritual selves.  But they usually don’t spend as much time improving their physical and mental selves.  Their efforts to learn new things slows as they approach retirement and the time spent on sports and physical exercise diminishes as their bodies wear down.   Covey’s focus was on achieving and maintaining a regimen of self-improvement in all areas long-term.  By continually investing the time and energy that it takes to improve, a person is propelled along a path of personal freedom, security, wisdom and power.

Saw-Sharpening Activities

According to Covey, there are four areas that need “sharpening.”

1. Physical Dimension

There is no lack of ideas for the kind of activities a person can do to improve their physical selves.  Yoga.  Kick boxing.  Spinning.  Running.  Bicycling.  Weight lifting.  Playing sports.  Martial Arts.  The list goes on and on.  But it is not just about exercise.  Physical improvement also includes beneficial eating, resting, deep breathing, hydrating and any other activities that help improve physical health.

2. Social / Emotional Dimension

This may be the area of self-improvement that has become the most difficult to achieve.  Social and emotional well-being is focused on making and maintaining meaningful connections with others.  When Covey wrote his book, computers were just becoming mainstream and the World Wide Web was something only techies discussed.  Social media, as we know it today, did not exist.  There was no Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp or Facebook.   The only things that tweeted were birds.  So Covey could not have foreseen just how much easier it would become to develop connections with people worldwide and yet how much more challenging it would be to develop and maintain real, meaningful connections with others.

The widespread use of phones, texting, emails and video conferencing has made it easier to stay in touch with large numbers of people on a superficial level but it has simultaneously made it much harder to make and keep deep, genuine connections.  Social media – with its propensity for shallow sharing and following – has exacerbated the problem.   The challenge, then, is to really connect with people on a personal level.  The best ways to do this are still the old-school methods.  Face-to-face meetings.  Sharing meals.  Playing games together.  Exchanging ideas.  Being transparent.   But because it is more time consuming and personally demanding to have and maintain meaningful connections with others, this is an area where sharpening the saw can be truly hard to do.

3. Mental Dimension

If sharpening the social and emotional saw has become more difficult thanks to technology, then sharpening the mental saw has become much easier to do for the very same reason.  Computers and smartphones have made it much easier to access information.  Online courses and instructional videos on YouTube have made it a breeze to learn anything from coding to real estate investing.  If the tools to sharpen the saw mentally include reading, writing, learning and teaching, these activities are facilitated by technology.  Even games that sharpen the saw, such as Chess, can be played online.  Of course, there are other ways to sharpen the mental saw that don’t involve technology, such as solving puzzles.

In fact, the real problem in sharpening the mental saw today is in having too much information and too many choices.  There is an information overload that stands to overwhelm even the most eager mind.  Culling information to ensure that limited time is used to learn and read information that adds value — while ignoring so much other misinformation and junk information that is permeating the web — is the challenge to sharpening the mental saw today.  It is critically important to become adept at discerning quality and separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff to ensure that the saw is sharpened, not dulled further.

4. Spiritual Dimension

The spiritual dimension is at a person’s core.  The spirit is at the center.  It is a person’s commitment to his/her value system.  To strengthen and enhance this dimension is more difficult because it is an internal task.  It isn’t a muscle that can be exercised and built up through repetition.  It isn’t a social activity that can be planned and scheduled.  It isn’t a book that can be read and studied.  To improve one’s spirit requires commitment.  Depending on a person’s faith and beliefs, the activities might involve regularly observing a day of rest, spending time in deep thought and reflection, or increasing prayer time.  Some might do medication, attend a religious service or study a book that is considered holy or sacred.  Given the volume of distractions and interruptions in today’s world, making time for spiritual renewal and growth can seem difficult.  But like all of the other dimensions, the spirit also needs sharpening in order to be refreshed and nourished.

By renewing the body, mind, emotions and spirit, a person is able to grow and change for the better.  Sharpening the saw keeps a person fresh and increases the capacity to produce and handle challenges.

So what happens to a person who never sharpens the saw in these four dimensions?  The body becomes feeble.  The mind becomes robotic and automated.  Emotions become sensitive and primitive.  The spirit becomes callous and cold.  In short, a person who never sharpens the saw becomes selfish and egotistical.   That is the opposite of the altruism and interdependence that Covey saw as the ultimate goal.   Instead of becoming highly effective, a person whose saw is never sharpened becomes ineffective.  There may be a lot of motion and action but the results are inadequate.

The only thing left to ask is when did you last sharpen the saw?  Have you been sharpening all dimensions?  Mind.  Spirit.  Body.  Emotions.  If the answer is no in even one area, make the time to do it soon.  You are, after all, your most important asset.  Invest in your own care.

Quote of the Week

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



© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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