Sharpen the Saw

20 practices of work/life balance and self-renewal

Imagine you are travelling through the woods and happen upon a wood cutter who is struggling to cut down a tree.

You notice the wood cutter is busy sawing away without much progress.

“How long have you been at this?” you ask.

“At least 5 hours, and I’m exhausted,” the wood cutter responds.

“Perhaps if you stopped to sharpen your saw, you would make better progress?” you reply.

The wood cutter responds, “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw; I’m too busy sawing!”

Sharpen the Saw

We’ve all experienced times when we were so busy that, just like the wood cutter, we didn’t take time to stop and recharge.

Even though we appeared busy, doing busy work, we were not very productive.

Studies have been conducted on busy professionals working 10 to 12 hours a day, and they have shown that productivity in the last 2 to 4 hours drops dramatically.

To be a mindful leader, we need to know when it’s time to take a break, both for ourselves and for the people around us.

Sharpen the Saw is the 7th habit from The Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.

This habit reminds us to build in regular rituals for work/life balance and self-renewal.

Here are a few sharpen-the-saw activities you can leverage:

1) Meditate

I’m a big fan of meditation.

Meditation will help you reduce stress and anxiety, keep calm under pressure and improve your ability to bounce back after setbacks.

It helps to increase your self-confidence, self-awareness, overall level of happiness and personal satisfaction.

Just a few minutes a day is enough to reap benefits.

2) Sleep

I used to believe that I only needed 5 to 6 hours of sleep each night to be at my best.

I decided to see if more sleep would actually make a difference.

After spending a week of getting 8 hours of sleep a night, I could not believe how different I felt.

My lack of sleep was definitely impacting my mental and physical performance.

The sweet spot for me is 7+ hours a night.

3) Eat

Would you put crappy fuel in a high-performance sports car?

Of course not.

Then why would you put crapping fuel (aka what you eat and drink) into your body?

Simply put, what you eat can greatly impact your performance.

Reducing (or eliminating) sugar, caffeine and fast foods is a simple adjustment you can make today.

4) Exercise

Any form of exercise is a great way to reduce stress and recharge.

I’ve gotten into the habit of performing a stretching routine every morning and lifting weights 5 times a week.

I also track my steps on my iPhone and attempt to hit 10,000 steps daily.

The secret is to start small and build up over time.

5) Rewards

I like to practice extreme self-care.

I figure that when I’m functioning at my best, I’m able to best serve others.

To this end, I build in regular rewards for myself throughout the day.

These rewards include reading a great book over my lunch break or spending a few minutes playing my favourite video game.

These are guilt-free, planned events and not distractions, as I’m being intentional by rewarding myself for being productive.

6) Connect

Even introverts like myself benefit from regular social interaction.

While you can connect over the phone or via messaging, real human interaction trumps virtual every time.

Going to the movies with friends or grabbing lunch with a co-worker are both great ways to power-up.

7) Distractions

Distractions not only get in the way of our productivity, they also take our attention away from balance and renewal.

Mute your technology and turn off as many notifications as you can.

Make a point of scheduling time with yourself for balance and self-renewal (yes, actually book it in your calendar).

8) Breathe

Taking a moment to stop and breathe is a great way to recenter and ground yourself.

Simply spend 60 seconds focusing your attention on your breath.

This is a great way to clear your mind before you start an important call or any productive activity.

9) Read

Reading a good book is a great way to refresh and recharge.

I spend at least 15 min every day reading either fantasy or sci-fi on my Kindle.

Whatever genre you choose, reading can both recharge the mind by taking a break and stimulate it to be more creative.

Follow me on Goodreads if you are looking for ideas on what to read.

10) Single Task

Constantly switching from task to task (aka multitasking) can be extremely draining.

A good way to take a break and still be productive is to single-task.

Choose a simple activity, get curious and dive in.

Be mindful as you fully participate in this activity and perhaps you will notice something new.

11) Journal

Journaling is a great way to change gears and give your brain a break.

The simple act of writing non-stop for 10 min can be very liberating.

Set a timer, put pen to paper, and don’t stop writing until the timer stops.

What do you write about? Whatever comes to mind.

12) Dream

Dreaming is one of those non-urgent yet important activities that we rarely get to do.

I enjoy putting my feet up and dreaming about possible future paths that I may travel.

If you are looking for a great question to ponder, try “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

13) Nature

Spending time in nature is a great way to rest and recharge.

You can combine many of the activities listed here in a natural setting.

Perhaps, read in a local park or walk a winding forest path.

14) Values

Being grounded in a core set of values and principles can be very comforting.

They lay a strong foundation that you can return to when things are crazy.

You can start with a value calcification exercise and measure yourself against it regularly.

15) Shut Down

One of the practices that I’ve been performing for years is something that Cal Newport calls “Shut down complete.”

This activity draws a hard line between your personal and professional life.

When I leave work for the day, I leave it completely. I don’t check emails or do client work outside of regular business hours.

To implement this ritual, tell yourself, “Shut down complete” at the end of your work day, and enjoy your night off.

16) Adventure

I have the fortune of being a parent to two great daughters.

One of my favourite things to do with them is to spend a Saturday going on an adventure.

This might be a bike ride, a hike or going to the park.

Bring a playful attitude toward any activity by turning it into an adventure.

17) Doodle

A trick that my oldest daughter uses to unplug is doodling.

She will begin with an empty page (or the corner of a full page) and start to doodle.

The secret to a great doodle is to withhold judgment and to simply enjoy the creative process.

18) News Fast

To keep people engaged, most news stories are filled with negative messages.

I stopped watching the news and reading the newspaper over 15 years ago.

I still hear about critical events and important things through real conversations with others.

Fill your mind by studying a good book or by having a great conversation.

19) Think

When was the last time you took a break from your busy schedule to just think?

Thinking can be a great way to process the events from the day or to plan the future.

Find a comfortable spot, choose a question that you are going to ponder, and then think.

20) Unplug

Unplug by implementing a no-technology rule one hour before going to bed and one hour after you wake up.

This includes no computer, no smart phone and no TV.

This is a great technique if you have trouble sleeping or if you find that your mind is racing at the end of the day.

Do you have a favourite self-renewal activity?

I’d love to hear about.

Enter it in the comments below.

I’m looking forward to your response.

If you would like to learn more about mindful leadership, simply head over to and sign-up for my free online training called The 31 Lessons of Mindful Leadership.

I help Mindful Leaders battle the forces of mediocrity in their lives, their teams, and their organizations. I do this by helping you create a personalized Rapid Success Strategy that enables you to Walk The Path, Unleash Your Superpower, and Work On Purpose.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.