Abe Lincoln’s Productivity Secret

by Brad Isaac on January 29, 2006

One of my favorite quotations comes from Abraham Lincoln when he said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Not only was that a metaphor for how we might approach all work in which we engage, but it also represented his philosophy as a skilled woodcutter. He spent much of his early life working odd jobs including rail splitting.  Considering people regard him one of the top 3 presidents in American history, he applied it to his political career as well. So we can take his quote both figuratively and in a literal sense.

Sharpening Tools for Better Results

I think of Lincoln’s quote often.  It is so simple, efficient and wise to apply it to any project we undertake.  After all, how many times do we bring the wrong tool to the job, only to waste countless hours or days trying to avoid the certain purchase of the right tool?  In my electronics, I have this problem all the time.  I’ll need a Torx 6 screwdriver, but won’t have one handy.  Instead, I grab a small flathead screwdriver and try to remove the screw with it by wedging it in at an angle and forcing it.  Naturally, this usually strips the head of the screw and damages the edge of the screwdriver.

As a boy, Abe Lincoln owned a hatchet and skill at using it.  I could guess he knew intimately what the difference in outcomes he could expect when he used a dull hatchet when compared with a sharpened one.  He knew the dull ax lacked efficiency; it made the work harder and resulted in less consistency in outcomes.

I own a hatchet for cutting stray branches in my yard.  When the hatchet is dull, the job is long and tiring.  It is even more dangerous because a dull hatchet has a tendency to bounce, resulting in a wild chop that can fling it into your leg.  However, when it is sharp, the job can take as little as a few minutes and it’s actually more fun.

Sharpening Your Ax to Make Your Projects Easier

But how do we “sharpen the ax” when it comes to our goals and our projects?  We may set a goal to manage our money better and keep more careful track of our budget.  Some of the steps include collecting all of our bills into one location, write them all down, enter them into a spreadsheet, balance our checkbook and add up our monthly expenses.  Also, it would be smart to write down what we spend every time we buy something.  This would involve keeping a pad of paper in our pocket and a pen so we could record them.

Hey! you can keep your ax extra sharp by subscribing to my pre-sharpened RSS feed :)

If you are like me, what can happen is I’ll sit down, start the writing down the bills and “oops! I forgot one, I need to get up and go get it.” I go into the other room, grab the bill and sit back down.  After I’m there for awhile, I remember “Hey, I need my car registration, oil change receipts, and car mileage so I can record what I pay for that every year.” So, up I go again, this time so I can go out to the car and rifle through the glove compartment.  As you might guess, I would be lucky not to find something to distract me from my task.

To sharpen the ax in this example, it would be far better to start out by thinking.  Grab a sheet of paper and make a list of all the items we need to start and everything we need to see our goal through to completion. For me, my list might look something like this:

  1. Spend 10-15 minutes collecting every last bill and receipt I need to record in the ledger
  2. While I’m up, grab a notepad, pen and calculator
  3. Collect my wife’s checkbook and my own
  4. Gather all of our credit cards, banking passwords and account numbers.
  5. Think through whether I need Quicken, or if I can use Excel to perform my budgeting needs
  6. If I need Quicken, go up to Wal-Mart and buy it, bring it home and load it
  7. Clear everything off my desk except for my computer, notepad, stack of bills and invoices
  8. Might I need a drink of water? Go get a glass.
  9. Will I want some music playing in the background?  If so, turn it on
  10. Shut the door for privacy
  11. Unplug, or turn off my network connection – no e-mail, web browsing.
  12. Unplug the phone in my office
  13. Launch TaskBlaze

Starting with everything I need is so much more efficient, because the excuse to get up and become distracted becomes more difficult.  In fact, it becomes easier to work on the project than it is to have to get up repeatedly and get a missing piece of the puzzle.  When we have everything we need within arms reach, we finish faster.  Progress will be steady and we will succeed more often.

Think about some of your top goals on your list for a few minutes.  Do you have everything you need to keep the progress rolling along?  Sure, we may have some big goals that requiring we achieve smaller goals ahead of time.  So you could start with a sub-goal or “step” if you use Achieve-IT! software. Think through everything you need to carry out that step.

Sharpening your mind

Another side to sharpening the ax is educating yourself.  Think of it this way.  When Lincoln said the first four hours of a 6-hour tree cutting activity, he would spend the first four sharpening the saw.  How can we apply this to our continuing education?

In my software building ventures, I can sometimes “paint myself into a corner” if I don’t first research what I am trying to do before I start.  A client may ask me to add a feature to my software that sounds great, but I don’t necessarily know how to do.  My tendency is to plow right in, with a dull ax and try to force the code to work.  You see, it’s much more fun to get started.  Yet, several hours (and build failures) later, I find I’ve got a headache, my program isn’t working and I’ve got a big mess on my hands.  There have been more days than I care to reveal where I’ve messed up so bad that I’ve had to restore my whole project from backup – costing sometimes days of progress.

The alternative to this inefficiency is to make the first task of any project to carefully plan the enhancement.  For me, writing a “mockup” or “pseudo code” of how I was going to perform the task.  And finally, using my rough draft as a guide ask what I need to read and research to get that job done.   It might not be fun to face the fact I don’t know something.  I like to think of myself as smart.  But by admitting I don’t know it and then seeking out chapters of books or articles describing what I want to do and then compiling it, I learn.

Pitfalls to Ax Sharpening and How to Do It Anyway

Why do we avoid sharpening the ax?  This usually is because we want to begin our projects right away.  We want to get moving so we can complete the tasks as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately, like the examples above reveal, going to work with a dull ax usually takes longer and makes the task less enjoyable.

We can motivate ourselves to sharpen the saw is to remember we face several risks for not sharpening:

  • We risk extending the time it takes to complete our goals.
  • We risk frustrating ourselves by having to stop several times midway through and having to sharpen.
  • We risk damaging the work and tools we already have
  • We risk decreased enjoyment of working through the project.

We want to enjoy what we’re doing don’t we?

Like everyone, I have to struggle with the fact ax sharpening isn’t as fun as whacking away at the tree.  Collecting the sharpening stone and ax takes time.  Running a wetstone over hard steel gets boring after just a few minutes.  But as Lincoln said, the simple ax sharpening can decrease tree cutting time by hours.

The Ax Sharpening Challenge

I challenge you to take some time to review your goals and look for “ax sharpening” opportunities you can take with some of them.  If you are just starting out on one of your goals, ask yourself if you have everything you need to complete it.  If you are missing something, what is it?  Are you lacking information/education?  A tool or some software?  Do you have the right materials?  If you are in the middle of completing a goal, then it’s not too late to assess whether you have everything you need and to write it down.  Whatever you are missing, go out and get it.

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January 30, 2006 at 4:33 pm

Great post! After reading this, I realize that a lot of my procrastination is a result of insufficient ax-sharpening. I want so much to just “begin,” but jumping in full-bore on many projects is too intimidating.

This makes even more sense to me than the concept of “next actions” from the cult-classic GTD. I suppose because “sharpening the axe” can be even a step further in meta-planning: instead of just thinking a step ahead in your plan, you actually completely plan out your planning process.

B. Riley January 30, 2006 at 8:52 pm

Great article!

Careful with that axe, Eugene. . .

Reese Nine February 16, 2006 at 5:11 pm

As a technical journalist for a monthly publication I am painfully aware of deadlines, but even more awake of the repercussions of inaccurate reporting. y favorite part of writing a story is sharpening the axe. It is only after I have been surfing the Web for days and devouring all the information I can on a subject that I realize what the “real story” is and how misinforming the article would have been if I did not investigate.
I would lose credibility and that would be the beginning of the end. The problem is that with each new piece of information, here are at least three more issues to explore, and the clock is ticking! All I can say is that as long as we don’t miss the printer deadline, no one gets hurt. At least it cannot be said that the article was technically flawed or that anyone was misquoted.

Yvonne April 29, 2006 at 12:33 am

Great article. It’s really wise. Thanks for sharing!

May 2, 2006 at 3:05 am

Nice post. i enjoyed the commentary though it seems to me you only got half of abe’s point and thus partially misinterpreted the quote. Yes, abe suggested that you need a sharp axe to cut down a tree, but when i read this quite read that it only takes 2 hours to cut down a tree, and if you give him six, he’ll just sit around and do nothing (sharpen his axe) for 4 hours.

it seems to me that the other moral to extract from this quote is about deadline setting: if you have 6 hours to do a 2 hour job, give yourself two hours to do it, and use the other 4 to do other important jobs.


October 26, 2006 at 12:40 pm

“Sharpening the Axe” may not cut it for all types of tasks. Especially ones that we’ve been procrastinating for long.

Many times, we procrastinate because we get bogged down just thinking about the “groundwork” that needs to be done. For instance, if I went the route of the author in order to do my bills, and tried to get “everything ready” before I sat down to do my bills, I would probably never even get started, because all that work would scare the crap out of me.

I would rather do it the Nike way – “Just do it”. Just pick up a handful of bills when you have a few minutes of spare time – and BAM – you’re done even before you start thinking whether you need “water” or “music”. And do a little every day, and soon you’ll be done.

Too much preparation and too much thinking is what leads to failure most of the time. Sometimes, it is better to just pull up your sleeves, and get down and dirty – starting NOW.

- Ravi Jayagopal

Brad Isaac October 29, 2006 at 2:46 pm

Alex and Ravi, yes, you have to use your best judgment on your tasks. If your goal is to mow the lawn and the blade is dull, perhaps a 20 minute trip up to the hardware store for a new blade is more efficient than 4 hours of sharpening.

July 5, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Great quote from Abe and I try to follow that advice also. Success is really about planning and research in anything I believe. Unfortunately I think sometimes I spend too much time planning and analysing and not enough taking action. So you definitely need a balance.

Jak – Dobermans Dens last blog post..Resin Doberman Dogs | Doberman Figurines

February 18, 2009 at 10:24 am

great post, i really think if more people spent a little time figuring out what things will make them more efficient they will get more done. thanks for the advice.

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