I was given a copy of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey in 2011 and found that the messages of the book resonated with my own personal values and gave me renewed purpose at a time when I felt my life was stagnating. 

I identified the aspects of my life that I needed to improve and whilst some of the things I wanted to improve were out of my control, I improved all the things that were possible. This included losing a stone in weight in the first six months and never putting it back on. Establishing the right habits is what this book is all about.

Rather than start with the first habit that the book focuses on, I thought that the extra time many of you have currently was a good time to go to the 7th habit, “Sharpen the saw”.

In the book, Covey references the story of the woodcutter who is spending so much time cutting trees that he says he has no time to sharpen his saw. As a result, each tree takes longer to cut down meaning he has even less time to sharpen the saw. 

It’s a vicious circle we can easily fall into. 

Years before Covey referenced the story in his book, Abraham Lincoln said “Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first 4 hours sharpening the axe.”

It seems so obvious, but it’s so easily forgotten. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me that they are “too busy to delegate”. Mad isn’t it? We’re all so busy doing what we are doing, we don’t have time to do any preparation. 

Until now of course.

Fellow “Covey fan” and friend of the firm, Steve Backley, of BackleyBlack, has an interesting perspective as an ex-professional sportsman and kindly contributed this video to our YouTube channel.

But what are the practicalities of “sharpening the saw”? 

I’ve often asked owner-managers what their greatest asset is. Some consider it to be their house, some their business. But for most of you, the biggest asset is you. The skills and experience you have built up will help you recover from whatever damage this terrible crisis causes. 

But whilst you continually invest in your business and probably your house, are you investing enough in yourself?

Covey said that a balanced programme for self-renewal needs to include the physical, social / emotional, mental and spiritual. For many of you who are under pressure every day of the week, one or more of those four items can be completely missing from your life. 

Well there’s no excuse any more is there?

The next few weeks is a great opportunity to invest in yourself.

And don’t think that sharpening the saw is about relaxing. We all need some down time but sharpening the saw can be just as much work as the sawing itself. You need to be proactive.

Our first tip is to set yourself one hour of the week when you properly update your “to do” list. Or set one up if you don’t have one. Early or late on Saturday or Sunday works well for this depending on whether you’re a lark or an owl.

The next decision is crucial. Do you put the personal stuff and the work stuff on the same list? That’s up to you but if you’re going to have two lists you need to allocate separate times for both or you’ll just do the list that you prefer! 

Then you need to prioritise your list or lists. Don’t go for the old high / medium / low importance strategy. That will result in you avoiding the one thing in your high list that is the most important thing on the list but that you’ve been avoiding.

Most important of all, start to commit to a perspective of what’s going to happen and to “being ready” including defining what “being ready” actually means. 

The reality this challenging period is going to last a while. But however long it is, those who have sharpened the saw the best will be more ready than those who haven’t.

Read our next article in our the Seven habits of highly effective people series: Be proactive.

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Malcolm Palmer


Managing Partner

01474 853856

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