10 ways to sharpen an axe

by | Jul 17, 2017 | General Productivity

Takeaway: For every minute we spend planning, we save several in execution—like sharpening an axe before chopping down a tree. Here are 10 of my favorite ways to do this: learn to meditate; tame distractions before working; single-task; know your most productive tasks; set intentions constantly; start a Maintenance Day ritual; exercise; eat foods that burn slower; don’t compromise on sleep; and work around your energy levels.

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 55s.

There’s a quote misattributed to Abraham Lincoln that goes, “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Even though he never said it, I love this idea, particularly as far as productivity is concerned. The message is this: for every minute we spend planning and preparing, we save several in execution. This is true only up to a point, of course—it’s impossible to be productive when we don’t do the work—but once we do, planning means our actions are more thought out, and we’re able to work more deliberately and intelligently.

Here are 10 of my favorite ways to plan and prepare before getting to work.

1. Learn to meditate

Meditation is hard, but that’s exactly what makes it worthwhile. In meditation, you focus on just one thing—this act takes tremendous willpower and it trains you, over time, to focus deeper on what’s in front of you in any given moment. On average, we spend only 53% of our time focusing on what’s in front of us—our mind is wandering for the remainder.

The time it takes to learn meditation will more than pay for itself as you master your attention and focus. (If you need help to get started, here’s a simple guide I wrote to introduce you to the practice.)

2. Tame distractions ahead of time

Here is a simple truth about distractions and interruptions: they’re near-impossible to resist after they come up, but are actually pretty easy to tame ahead of time.

Take stock of the distractions and interruptions that derail your productivity, examine which ones you can deal with ahead of time, and then do just that. This takes a few minutes, but will save an incredible amount of time throughout the day.

3. Do one thing at a time (even if only for a few minutes)

We can only consciously focus on one thing at a time. When we try to work on too many things in the moment, we spread our attention thin, and accomplish a lot less because we do a mediocre job on everything. This is what makes multitasking inefficient.

One of the best ways to become more productive is to single-task. Work on just one thing at a time in order to immerse yourself in that task. This leads us to a hyperfocused state, where we’re totally engrossed in our work. This is easier said than done (though this tactic is infinitely easier after you tame the distractions around you), but it’s worth the effort for the productivity benefits you’ll reap.

Start with single-tasking for 20 minutes—after you finish, reflect on what you were able to accomplish in that time. Chances are you’ll want to continue with this tactic because of how much more productive it will make you.

4. Know your most productive work tasks

We often start working without first knowing the most productive tasks in our day—the consequential tasks through which we accomplish a disproportionately large amount.

If you haven’t done so already, step back from your work to find your most productive tasks. This will take a few minutes, but will give you an incredible amount of insight into what’s most important in your work.

5. Set intentions constantly

The more you set intentions, the more deliberately and productively you work.

Through the Rule of 3 (which I probably write about too much on this site) I set intentions every year, month, week, and day.

While this may sound obsessive, I also keep a running list of intentions on the giant whiteboard in my office. The more often you set intentions, the more productive you become.

6. Do all your maintenance tasks at once

Maintenance tasks at home—like taking out the trash, cutting your nails, preparing meals, and cleaning up—can be a pain. By lumping them together and doing them all at once, you free up time, attention, and energy for more meaningful and productive work throughout the week.

This can take a few minutes of planning at first, but you’ll feel the positive effects of having a Maintenance Day ritual throughout the week.

7. Exercise

It’s pretty simple: when you exercise, you have more energy. In writing an article like this one, it’s easy to fall into the trap of preaching about the wonderful science of exercise and the cocktail of endorphins it releases, but I’ll resist this trap.

Exercise gives you more energy—and energy is the fuel you burn in order to become more productive. It can take dedication and energy to show up at the gym, but like the other tactics on this list, that time investment will more than pay for itself.

8. Eat food that burns slower

 What you eat has a huge impact on your energy levels, and thus your productivity.

There are two kinds of food: food that’s highly processed and burns fast, and food that’s natural and burns slower. If you look back to the meals that have provided lasting energy, chances are they weren’t highly processed. Natural food—food that’s still in nature’s packaging, like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, meats, and so on—burn super slow in your body, and offer a lasting amount of energy over time.

9. Don’t compromise your sleep

I see sleep as the process through which we exchange our time for energy. And the exchange rate is pretty damn good.

For every hour of sleep you miss, you lose even more productivity the next day. Getting the proper amount of sleep not only provides more energy—it also makes you more productive.

10. Work around your energy levels

Figuring out when in the day you have the most energy means you can align your work with how your energy naturally fluctuates.

Since we’re more productive during high-energy periods, we should schedule our most demanding tasks during these times. Similarly, our least taxing tasks should happen when we have lower amounts of energy. Working around our energy levels means we can work smarter and more deliberately.

Written by Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity and is the author of three books: How to Calm Your Mind, Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project. His books have been published in more than 40 languages. Chris writes about productivity on this site and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.

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