“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal (also billionaire board member for Facebook, venture capitalist and hedge fund creator), confronts allegedly busy people. He asks two questions:
1.) Are you actually working and being effective?
2.) Or are you just creating the impression that you are working hard, merely signaling to others that you are a busy person?
He sees the busy professional, business owner, tech startup, executive, or investor as ostentatious but unproductive. It’s a sentiment which Warren Buffett has echoed, and Richard Branson has harped on. Readers may notice this topic is included in nearly every Forbes and Wall Street Journal interview, every book on world class performance, and basically the quotation anthology of any historic figure whose name we recognize. They call it outright laziness. Some call it lazy-busy.
Steven Pressfield in the War of Art encouraged the reader to overcome resistance. He talked about the writer’s journey as an illustration for breaking out of inaction and committing to action. Successful and high-achieving people understand this. They have created a certain level of mastery around defeating the resistance of idleness, sloth, and torpor. It’s a great win, since the tendency in life is inaction. However, as in all things in life, there is a spectrum. Just as there is too little action on one end, there is too much on the other. Ambivalence toward effectiveness, let alone efficiency, is found in both. Sadly, people can and do execute action without purpose, without heart, without intention. Uninspiring busyness can be confusedly equated with productivity. Business meetings and even work can be conflated with motivational impact.
Tim Ferriss, the bestselling author and now-prolific interviewer of the most important entrepreneurs and businesspeople of our time, is even less forgiving in his assessment. He calls being busy “a perverse badge of honor" (https://www.cnbc.com/2016/08/25/tim-ferriss-being-perpetually-busy-is-a-kind-of-laziness.html). His argument is simple. If you are perpetually incapable of making time, then you are ineffective, unskilled at time management, and unwilling to develop one of the most fundamental characteristics of leadership: prioritization.
Prioritization carries an internal tug-of-war between perception of forthcoming work and your actual capacity to perform that work. Be careful. You are generally telling people that you are too busy swinging a blunt axe to spend the time to get a sharp one. Tasks are going to pile up regardless; so you might as well sharpen the axe which is doing the chopping. Prioritize what creates in you the ability to handle tasks. Remember what enables you to do work in the first place: fitness. I don’t mean in the physical sense of simply being able to do some push-ups. I mean in the universal sense of sound mind, sound body. I mean in regards to the definition, “the capacity to do.”
Fitness is blade sharpness. Being so busy that you say you can’t make time for fitness makes for a legitimate-sounding excuse. The only problem is there is no evidence that productivity or effectiveness rises with subtraction of fitness. Fitness (and health), by definition, is the capacity to perform more work in less time, endure more stress with less consequence, and continue to do both with greater sustainability. It is the most important part of the sharp axe. The avoidance, therefore, of investing in ones health and fitness is perhaps more than the underlying lazy-busyness. Perhaps it’s a symbol of that individual’s unwillingness to work hard or smart. There are statistics on this: the Journal of Labor published results showing that workers who exercise earn 9% more than their sedentary counterparts (http://business.time.com/2012/06/08/one-more-reason-to-hit-the-gym-youll-make-more-money/).
I’ve worked with many founders, CXOs, advanced professionals, salespeople, and business owners who get stuck. They hit a freeze point wherein they simply aren’t growing as a person anymore. The axe is blunted entirely. Every single one of them, when confronted with this accusation, doubles down on their busyness narrative by invoking “prioritization.” They genuinely believe that they are prioritizing when they’re just being lazy. They believe that swinging a rounded mallet at a sequoia is the responsible thing to do. Sometimes, in this state of defensive bewilderment, they’ve “re-prioritized” such that they’re with family less, contributing to the community less, ultimately spending less time on creativity and restoration. In almost every case, their own health and fitness isn’t even bookended; it’s forgotten. At this point, the busy person has grown to consider the act of sharpening some irresponsible luxury.
And those aren’t coincidences. The lack of priority to health and fitness is the cause of stagnancy. It’s not to say people can’t achieve quite a bit during a long period of extremely unhealthy behaviors. Some people thrive in dysfunction for a while, in fact. After all, they are gaining strength to use a chipped-up axe blade while the edge gets duller. Eventually, however, the plateau comes. Bluntness outweighs force.
Long-term flourishing growth can only happen when people prioritize a cultivation of foundation. It can only come when there is a regular maintenance of axe blade. Every list of billionaire habits includes exercise and meditative or reading time. Clearly, total development as a person cannot be relegated to a title, a business brag, or a paycheck. It is found in the ongoing development of the total person, both mind and body.
We’ve all known someone who carries the threadbare wooden handle leftover from a once-ominous hatchet. We’ve all run into at least a few examples of people who used to “have it.” They used to get things done. They used to be an inspiration. They used to have drive. They used to make a difference. They used to swing a sharpened axe. They used to sharpen it daily, first, before they did anything else. Now, with an inflated title, it’s hard to even explain what exactly they do. They themselves even have a hard time with it at dinner parties. Someone asks them what they do; and they proceed to describe their title, their industry, their background, their rise to their current rank. But when they’re prodded on with what exactly they fill their over-busied week, there’s a lot of “um”s, “reports,” “meetings,” and not much else. They have grown to swing a really blunt handle that once was a portentous, calamitous slicing machine. It’s a sad remnant of a bygone era; and it’s embarrassing.
We’ve all fallen into the busyness trap before, since it’s such a fixture in our culture. We think wearing down the blade is accolade-worthy. We invert the Lincoln quote, telling people we need eight hours to perform what should be a two-hour endeavor because we supposedly haven’t the “extra” time it takes to sharpen our tools in the first place. It’s not just a form of laziness. It is laziness. We refuse to put the work in to analyze precisely, prioritize correctly, and execute efficiently. Even though it’s busyness, it is so very obviously more parts lazy than busy.
People sense they need to sharpen the axe. We read a Lincoln quote, and we’re indicted and convicted. But where to begin? We can acknowledge the truth of our lazy-busyness and still be uncertain how to change. The whole ordeal seems overwhelming. But nobody said we need to return to a PERFECT sharpness. We must merely assuage the dysfunction little by little.
Return to fundamentals: eliminate exhaustion; sleep; move; manage stress; restore yourself; build strength; develop endurance. Then, swing the axe. When the blade dulls, repeat. Next time, before the blade dulls, repeat. Next time, long before any sign of dulling, repeat.
A return to fundamentals is not too time-consuming. We know by virtue of the Pareto principle that a small increase in the appropriate input will reap incredible improvement in the effective output. More specifically, very tiny investments of time can yield shockingly beneficial sharpness. Research confirms it: http://www.elev8wellness.com/wellblog_best_nutrition_training_coaching_experts/spend-less-time-on-fitness-in-order-to-improve-fitness-and-everything-else
We must confront lazy-busyness in search of effective, productive efficiency. It may cost twenty minutes on the front end of a day. But it’ll save hours on the back end of the same day. It may cost days on the front end of a month. But it’ll save months on the back end of a year. It’s easy to get right to chopping. But it’s a mature step to sharpen. It sounds good to show off your busyness. But all that matters is to showcase your handiwork. It’s popular to claim diligent effort. But it’s rare to demonstrate finished products. When you return to regular sharpening, the Peter Thiels of the world will ask, “where are the hewn trees?” And you will stand over felled groves, with pristine blades at the ready for more.