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Sharpen Your Axe

Jake Gibbs | October 9, 2015 

Two men, Paul and Steve, raced to cut down equally sized, massive oak trees, known for their dense, tough wood. Both worked furiously, hacking away at the giants, chips flying away with each swing. A few hours in, Paul stopped chopping and went out of sight for a full hour. Steve, feeling he could get ahead, continued to chop away with great intensity. Paul eventually returned and continued chopping. Despite a 1-hour break, Paul finished his tree first, while Steve still had a ways to go. Baffled by losing, Steve asked, “How did you beat me?” Paul said, “I spent an hour sharpening my axe.”


“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”– Abraham Lincoln

Ask yourself an honest question: Are you swinging with a dull axe? Are you burnt out? Is your mind fresh? Are you productive? Do you have a vision and goals for your life? Do you accomplish what you intend to? Is the quality of your work high? Are you working hard but not seeing the results you would like to see?

Taking an honest inventory often reveals that while we may be putting in long hours and working hard, our efforts may be less than effective if our axe– the passion, creativity, and internal drive —  is dull.

If you feel worn out, foggy brained, distracted, or overwhelmed, you won’t work at your full productivity levels. Your decisions may be misguided and your efforts less productive.

The cure? Sharpening your axe.


Sharpening your axe is taking a step, be it for a few minutes, hours, days, or even weeks, out of your daily grind to stop swinging and reprioritize, reflect, and rejuvenate. Since it’s hard to see the forest through the trees, taking time to think big picture, analyze your past, current, and future, and hit the refresh button will give you the energy you need to get back at it again, this time with better results.


First, to sharpen your axe, you have to stop swinging and set aside axe-sharpening time. While you may feel you need to work, work, work, in reality, taking a break from work is exactly what you need to make your work more effective. Consider taking time each day, whether before your day starts, at the end of the day, or sometime during the day, to stop and sharpen your axe. If 15-30 minutes isn’t enough, you should take a day off. If a day isn’t enough, take a week. If you don’t set aside time to sharpen your axe, you’ll keep swinging and swinging until that thing is dull, rusty, and worn out.

Second, after you’ve set aside axe-sharpening time, you should pause to reflect, reprioritize, and rejuvenate.

Reflect on the big picture. What has led you to where you are? Do you like where you are? What can be improved in your life? Where do you want to be years from now? Is your current path going to take you where you want to be? If not, what needs changing?

Reprioritize your goals. Now it’s time for brainstorming, planning, and realigning goals. What are the main things you want to achieve in your life, be it your family, career, or elsewhere? What is the most important thing for you? What distractions or clutter can you eliminate? How can you keep the main things the main things? How can you allocate your time and efforts to what matters most? Resetting your goals gives you a new compass and roadmap to follow in the coming months.

Rejuvinate your mind and body. We’re not robots. We get worn out and need to refresh periodically. However it is that you rejuvenate, do it! Go fishing. Go on a road trip. Hit the beach. Read books. Have an adventure. Start training for a race. As you get out of work mode and into fun mode, you’ll be rejuvenated in body and mind, ready to tackle work again.

Third, when you return from sharpening your axe, start swinging again. Now that your axe is sharp again, change your habits, workflow, and mentality. Align your work with your goals and your newly established vision for the future.

Last, keep sharpening periodically. If you’re swinging, your axe will eventually become dull and you’ll need to sharpen again. Set time aside periodically, be it daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly, to sharpen your axe again on a regular basis.

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Jake Gibbs

Jake Gibbs | Design Specialist

Jake Gibbs is a Design Specialist at ListEngage and an expert at designing and building elegant, cross-platform compatible, mobile responsive emails and landing pages on the Salesforce Marketing Cloud. From brainstorming and ideation to polishing the final product, he loves the creative process. Jake has worked with more than 60 clients since joining ListEngage in 2014. Some of his projects have included L’Oreal, Vanguard, Carhartt, Harvard Business School, RCI/Wyndham, Huggies, and Planet Fitness.