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Sharpening the Saw

I recently read that Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had five hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend four hours sharpening the saw.”

As I age, I think more about self-care and investing in myself than I ever did before, so I was glad to encounter Steven Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” who lists “Sharpening the Saw” as one of the fundamental habits of success. After all, a blade that just cuts and cuts becomes dull and ultimately unusable. And a person who just works and works may become burned out, sometimes beyond repair.

Covey stresses the need to renew ourselves in the four spheres of our lives, physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional. In theory, I know this is important: rest, play, nurturing myself. But in practice, how much do I really do this? And doesn’t it seem that for women, with all the roles we play, this is especially challenging? Yes, yes, we cry, a day to myself, that vacation to Portugal, the gym, a weekend without work; I have always wanted to learn Spanish and I used to love to skate.

But where do I find the time? True: I can always make more money, but I can’t make more time. Time has to be carved out from somewhere, and I turned to Covey again for some insights.

Covey divides our life activities into four quadrants:

Quadrant I. Urgent and Important: Here fall all our crisis management and the stressful OMGs of life;

Quadrant II Not Urgent, but Important: Here is our saw-sharpening and investment in ourselves, our renewal, our strategic planning, the place where, optimally, we would spend most of our time;

Quadrant III. Urgent but Not Important: We know exactly what these are – certain phone calls, certain people, certain demands on our time we should never have signed up for;

Quadrant IV. Not Urgent and Not Important – Here we have zoning out to Candy Crush or mindless sitcoms, fine once in a while, but when burnout happens, this can become deleterious and habit-forming.

Not surprisingly, self-care and self-nurture, and almost all growth activities, fall into that second quadrant, Not Urgent but Important. How do we shift our lives away from the stress and crisis management of Quadrant I and the time wasters of Quadrants III and IV and live our lives in the strategic and saw-sharpening zone of quadrant II?

A good start is to identify the unimportant and start to say ‘no’ to it. Just that – a simple no. It feels awkward at first, but you will be surprised how good you get at it with practice. And instead of One and a Half Men reruns and Candy Crush, consider some real nurture and recreation. I’m thinking about recreation, the root of that word. Let’s ask: What will re-create me? What will give me new perspective, a new lease on life?

If you are workaholic, start with rest. Remember, workaholics become pretty intense people and they are seldom fun to be around. A day off to do nothing (okay, a morning, or two hours, whatever – just start) is not only a gift to yourself, it is a gift to everyone around you.

What else? Time in nature? The ocean or a stand of spruce firs, standing still and listening to the birds cry and breathing in the magnificence of the world? Or, perhaps, catching up with an old friend (not those “urgent” ones). A date to go skating? Learning how to knit? A shopping trip for that Portugal vacation? And that word “nurture”: funny how vague we get when we think about nurturing ourselves. We have no such problem when it comes to nurturing our partners, children, or friends, we know exactly what to do to cultivate their well-being and growth, but when it comes to ourselves, we draw a blank.

So, here’s a hint: whatever you are doing for them, do for yourself. Start by spending some quality time thinking what you (you, not they) need and want. Just as you would get in touch with a good friend, get in touch with yourself and really listen to what comes up. You may be surprised.

Just for today, what about a massage? Do I dare suggest a weekly massage, ongoing and a regular part of your schedule? How about theater tickets? When was the last time you went to an art show, the ballet, a concert, or even the movies? How about doing something you never tried before? Let’s take ourselves out on a date: at least we can be certain of lively, intelligent, and entertaining company. I am imagining cultivating a playful attitude to life, all of it, the work, the stressors, the urgencies. How can I rekindle my childhood love of play and adventure? Maybe I can wake up each day and ask myself, what game shall I play today? How about playing “let’s pretend” and dressing the part? Today I will be a powerful ruler, a cinematic beauty, a Nobel laureate in the sciences. No one needs know except me – a secret identity can be loads of fun.

Fun, relaxation, learning, taking the world in instead of on – I am letting this become a part of my life. And it is becoming a habit, one that leads to better decisions, less impulsivity, fewer knee-jerk reactions, fewer conflicts. The secret of Quadrant II living is that the more time you spend there, the less time you spend in Quadrant I, crisis management and all that OMG stress. The most obvious benefit of life in Quadrant II is when you apply it to preventative health measures, where a small investment of time can save months and years of heartache, not to mention your life. Does this take effort? Yes, a bit. Will certain people, especially the “urgent” ones, not encourage our self-caring and self-nurturing? Possibly. Let’s that be okay with you whatever they may think and persevere. People who love the self-caring and self-nurturing you will miraculously emerge to support you. (Did we mention developing a supportive network and letting go of your caseload? No time like the
present.)

When a rocket is shifted a few degrees from its path at the outset, the effect on its trajectory can be momentous: it can wind up on a new planet, even among new stars. So it may be with us—a small shift in behavior may lead us to phenomenal new places. Maybe a university class; maybe a new love affair with painting or writing; maybe the skating rink.

Maybe, finally, Portugal.

By Rootchi 


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