Stephen Covey used the phrase “Sharpening the Saw” to describe the habit of regularly investing in your physical, spiritual, intellectual, and relational well-being. A lumberjack isn’t wasting time if he stops to sharpen his ax. Keeping it sharp enables him to do better work. Similarly, regularly investing in the core aspects of your life isn’t a waste of time. It will also positively impact everything else you do.
This idea has long influenced how I approach my daily routines. At any given time, I usually have a few activities that I commit to doing every day. They vary from month to month and year to year but normally include activities such as reading or walking or prayer or writing or meditation or various forms of exercise. A few months ago, around the time our baby arrived, I was reevaluating which practices I would commit to. But beyond just considering which ones made sense in this season of life, I was also paying extra attention to how much time I was willing to commit to each.
The challenge I often run into is I can easily be too ambitious in what I commit to doing. But inevitably there will be times where I don’t feel like doing a certain activity on a given day. Or my schedule will suddenly change, or I’ll simply be distracted. On those days, if I’ve set my daily target too aggressively, it can be difficult to even get started. It’s all too easy to skip it altogether, telling myself I’ll do it tomorrow. And though missing a day here and there may not be a big deal for some, I still have that discomforting knowledge that I broke the commitment I had made with myself. Plus, skipping one day makes it a little easier to skip the next day when something comes up. And if I’m not careful, what could have been a helpful habit can quickly disappear.
On those days, if the sense of obligation won’t allow me to skip and I force myself to fulfill the commitment, I may still end up begrudging doing so the entire time. But if I believe something is benefitting me, why begrudge the fact that I’m investing time and energy into that area? For me, the issue usually isn’t with the activity itself, as much as the level of time I committed to practicing it. But if that’s the case, there’s a simple solution: I can simply adjust how much time I commit to it, day-in and day-out. That’s what I was thinking about earlier this fall.
My goal was to make sure whatever I committed to was imminently doable, even on those days where time was short, or I didn’t feel like it. Instead of setting ambitious daily goals, I decided to set very low minimums. For my physical well-being, I committed to a daily five-minute calisthenic routine. For my intellectual well-being, I make sure I read at least one page a day. Now, these are only “minimums.” Most days I’ll do much more. But I don’t feel obligated to.
One benefit of setting a low bar is there is minimal resistance to getting started. Even on those days where something comes up, or I’m not feeling like it, I can still do the minimum. Even if it’s later in the day, and I’m getting tired, I can still take a few minutes to invest in one of these areas. I don’t have to summon extraordinary amounts of willpower to pull it off. I’ve set the bar low because I know there will be days where I won’t feel like doing anything. And when those days come, I can still make a little progress.
When I was thinking about these things a few months ago, it was in light of having another member of the family arrive. Having a baby can alter your daily routine quickly. But not long afterward, we faced some other routine-shifting experiences, the most notable being the fire that displaced us from our house. The last few months have had plenty of change to go around. But because I had shrunk down my commitments to bite-size portions, it’s been easier to consistently invest in the core areas of my life day-in and day-out.
I’m under no illusion that a single bite-size activity will make much of a difference in itself. But I do believe in the power of habits over the long haul. Day after day, every investment, no matter how small, has an impact. Every time I stop to “sharpen the saw,” even if it’s only for a few minutes, I’m reminded of an area in my life that is important to me. Each little practice provides a small win for the day, even when everything else doesn’t go as expected.
But my time investment is not limited to only a few minutes here or there each day. These may be the minimums, but they’re not the limits. Just because the bar is low doesn’t mean the ceiling is low. Maybe I’ve only committed to a five-minute activity. But once I get started, I may end up spending way more time than that. Or I may block out a chunk of time later in the day to do related activities. But on those days where other things come up, and my interest or attention is elsewhere, I’ve decided in advance that even certain bite-size practices are sufficient. On those days, maybe I only make a small investment, but it’s an investment nonetheless. It’s keeping the saw sharp, and it increases the odds that I’ll keep on swinging tomorrow.
Questions: What daily/regular practices would help you develop your physical, spiritual, intellectual, and relational well-being? What’s the minimum amount you could commit to doing regularly, even when other things come up?