Sharpen Your Axe

Hi friends,

I’ve been casually obsessed (!) with this quote for a number of years. Its often and contentiously accredited to Abraham Lincoln, and goes along the lines of ‘If you have six hours to chop down a tree, you should spend the first four hours sharpening your axe’. There is a ton of content online that interprets this to mean a number of different virtues. Which is fine. Live and let live.

For example, There is already an interesting newsletter on Substack titled just that; ‘Sharpen Your Axe‘ is about refining your thinking skills in relation to the way news is presented.

Dr Steven Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – yes that one) defined this as “increasing your personal production capacity by daily self-care and self-maintenance”.

To me this quote is about optimising my skills to be ready for any situation. And the exciting part about that is the more I read and experiment in my own life, the more ways I find to move slowly towards that state. Yes its about finding the right tools for you, but also about learning to use your tools, keeping them and yourself in tip-top readiness, and eliminating the distractions and sources of friction to their use.

Over the coming issues of this newsletter I will be laying out the approaches and tools that are working for me, and opening the dialogue to see both how they resonate for others, but also I hope from what you have learnt that I am yet to discover.

Undoubtedly the act of sharing this will prompt me to add to this list, but in the first instance here we go. I’ve organised my thinking into three areas:

1. Keep Learning

Read. As often and as widely as you can. This is life experience free from others who have put the time in already. This is a great way to understand your own misconceptions, biases and motivations.

Talk to other people. Ask even if you believe you know the answer. Try to be the least intelligent person in the room. Securing a mentor (or several) is the Nth degree of this.

Develop hobbies that contribute to the quality of your life. Often it is said you should have a hobby for each of these outcomes: to stay healthy, to increase knowledge, to make money,

Avoid stagnation. New hobbies, a change of job, ticking something off your ‘out of comfort zone’ or ‘bucket’ list keeps you sharp. If taking on a new job, it is more than the skills of the job you are learning, it is interpreting and navigating the organisational norms of interaction – this skill alone is priceless.

2. Get Organised

Consider your purpose. Once you have, set goals that align to it. Make them big scary ones.

Develop systems to manage the tasks that life and work generate.

Develop systems to capture the knowledge you gather, in a way you can reuse later.

Develop systems that manage your time in line with your goals, before others manage it for you.

Develop mental models for the things you do. Develop models both for success and to cope in the event of problems occurring.

Track data on yourself for the things that you wish to do better. Ask for feedback, even if it is painful.

3. Reduce Friction

Develop the habits to make everything listed previously become the automatic and easiest pathway.

Meditate, and if not, at least do certain activities mindfully. Avoid multi-tasking.

Exercise, but also eat carefully. You cannot out-train a bad diet.

Get good rest and sleep. Work in harmony with the rhythms of your own energy levels.

Avoid social media, mainstream news and manage your notifications for both.

Clean out your physical and digital spaces often. Make this a routine as much as anything else.

Try to close all open loops. If this is tasks forgotten, arguments not resolved, whatever the case, develop systems that ensure your brain is not dwelling on half-forgotten issues.

Develop habits that reduce the chances of acting out any bad habits or triggers to them.

Batch tasks rather than jumping around between types of work.

Let’s move on

I’m so damn excited to get into a discussion on each of these ideas! If you are like me, every time I think I have one of the above approaches to life nailed, I find my job, family or body changes and I’m back to the start looking for a better way. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts as well. Hit reply, or jump into the comments on the app – I look forward to chatting with you.


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