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Why you should sharpen your saw

Sharpen your saw in the mold of Stephen R. Covey through hydration, exercise, sleep and reflection, and you'll see productivity gains.

6 min read


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In previous productivity steps, we planned our work (Step 1), put systems into place to keep our people informed and in sync (Step 2) and rolled up our sleeves to get work done (Step 3). This post goes deeper on Step 4, sustaining for maximal productivity, by exploring how to sharpen your saw.

The next “self-care” step is to “sharpen your saw,” to quote the habit devised by Stephen Covey.

Like a dulled saw cutting through a thick tree log, we produce diminished results when our depleted self attempts to “cut through” the daily grind and challenging projects. Even when we are working, we’re just going to get the same amount done or at the same level of quality.

To succeed over the long haul, we need to take care of ourselves through what we eat, the exercise and sleep we get, and more.

We discussed in an earlier post the need to eat nutritious food and snacks as a way of fueling our bodies throughout the workday. Here, we’ll explore the other areas.


Another way to stay energized is to hydrate often and in sufficient quantities. Water is essential for life. It’s involved in many cellular functions, including energy production. Not drinking enough water may lead to dehydration, which can slow bodily functions, leaving you feeling sluggish and tired.

You can avoid dehydration by drinking water even when you’re not thirsty. Try to drink water regularly throughout the day.

Drinking water offers another health benefit, in that it can help to take up space in the stomach. This leads to a feeling of fullness and reducing hunger. A person may also think that they are hungry when, in fact, they are thirsty. Drinking a glass of water before reaching for something to eat can help to curb unnecessary snacking.


Another great way to sharpen your saw and increase energy and productivity is through exercise (particularly the aerobic variety). According to the American Psychological Association, we are 15% more productive on days that we exercise before work. The study also found that physically active employees were less likely to develop job burnout and depression.

Now, you may be thinking that exercise will drain energy rather than boost it. After all, by the time that you finish a workout, you’re tired, perspired, out of breath and in need of a shower. But those who are fit and get regular physical activity know better. Fatigue is the result of not being active, such as when we spend all day sitting at a desk.

A 2008 study found that inactive people who normally complained of fatigue could increase their energy levels by 20% and simultaneously decrease fatigue by as much as 65% by simply participating in regular, low-intensity exercise.

Sure, exercise can drain your energy, especially after a long, intense session. But regular, consistent exercise that keeps you fit and healthy will ultimately perk you up, not leave you feeling drained and tired. This is because the more you exercise aerobically, the more mitochondria the body makes to produce more energy to meet your needs.

When should one exercise? The answer is daily — ideally before work or when your body typically starts lagging. Of course, exercise at other times, such as during lunch break, right after work or at night, is preferable to not exercising at all.

You can get more out of your workout time by eating some fruit just before you start. Fruit provides us with “instant energy;” our bodies can quickly break them down and move the nutrients into our bloodstreams. The result is more energy during workouts and more energy afterwards.


The next “sharpen your saw” strategy to keep us fresh and productive is to get adequate sleep. When we don’t sleep enough (a term called “sleep deprivation”), our productivity and quality of work suffers tremendously. Our bodies need sleep, just as they need air and food to function at its best.

When we sleep, our bodies heal and restore their chemical balance. Our brains forge new thought connections, and we refresh for the work ahead. Without enough sleep, our brains and body systems don’t function normally.

Sleep deprivation is caused by consistent lack of sleep and/or a reduced quality of sleep (most adults need a minimum of seven hours of sleep nightly). Consistent failure to get adequate quality sleep can lead to health consequences that affect your entire body and will have a certain impact on how much you get done each day.

study from Harvard Medical School found that American companies lose more than $60 billion annually because of employee sleep deprivation. We really do need to slow down so that we can speed up.

Not only do our bodies need daily breaks in the form of sleep, but we also need to recharge by taking regular vacations. These will help you clear your mind and prime your body for sustained success.

Go deep within

Another way to stay fresh is to take time to go deeper within ourselves through meditation and prayer. Studies show that meditation is associated with increased cortical thickness in areas of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional processing. That change is associated with improved working memory and skilled executive decision-making.

Meditation and prayer can each help you relax, declutter your thoughts and sharpen your concentration. All those results enable you to stay on task longer.

Particularly on pressure-filled days, meditation and prayer help to reduce stress, which can muddy the mind and keep us from performing at our best. Meditation in particular helps to deepen our concentration while lessening the mental effort needed to stay focused.

Finally, one last tip if you’re looking to sharpen your saw: Keep the temperature comfortable. A recent survey found that productivity drops significantly when the office is either too cold or too warm. Federal guidelines call for workplace temperatures to be between 68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is an executive coach who helps leaders and their teams become more productive. Download his productivity blueprint and take his productivity assessmentReach out to him to learn more about his high-powered mastermind groups that help leaders power up, problem solve, and get more done.

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