Sharpen the Saw: Exploring Covey’s Final Habit

In this talk, we explore the final habit of Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits: Sharpen the Saw. This concept is about being proactive and making sure you have enough resources to accomplish your goals in life. We will discuss how it can be applied to our own lives, especially as students.

“sharpen the saw reflection” is a short story about how a man’s life changes after he meets his wife. The protagonist becomes more focused on what’s important in life, and it helps him to live longer.

Poster by Art of Manliness about habits for sharpening the saw.

Welcome back to our monthly series summarizing, expanding, and riffing on each of the seven behaviors outlined in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

I fall into funks every now and then when I’m exhausted, unhappy, uninspired, and pissed. I’ll attempt to push myself to work through sheer mental grit on days when I’m in a funk. Caffeine will be poured into my head and body. “Just work for 15 minutes,” I’ll urge myself as I set Pomodoro timers. I’ll use all of the productivity tips I’ve picked up over the years.

However, it is never successful.

In fact, I often feel worse. I start whining and complaining about all the silly things and people that irritate me throughout the globe.

Kate will advise me at this point in my downward spiral, “You should definitely go take a sleep.” Alternatively, go for a stroll outside. Alternatively, go have a massage.”

“However, I don’t have time to accomplish such a thing!” I respond with a counterattack. “I’ve got a lot on my plate!”

“Well, you’re not getting anything done while you’re in a funk,” she always responds. You’ve just been in your chair for an hour, stewing. After you’ve taken care of your funk, you may return to work. You’ll be more productive in the long run if you take some time off from work in the near term.”

Of course, she is correct.

And re-reading the last chapter of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People only reinforced Kate’s thesis. “Make the Saw Sharper” is Habit 7, and today we’ll look at what that means, how to achieve it, and how taking purposeful timeouts may help you perform better in life.

What Does “Sharpen the Saw” Mean?

“Give me six hours to down a tree, and the first four will be spent honing the axe.” —Abraham Lincoln was an American president who served from 1861 to 1865.

Covey opens his chapter on Habit 7 with a scenario that wonderfully describes my face-punching loop of being in a funk but doing nothing about it since I was too busy to take a break from work:

Assume you come across someone in the woods, frantically sawing down a tree.

“What are you up to?” you inquire.

“Can’t you see?” the irritated response asks. “I’m cutting down this tree with a chainsaw.”

You exclaim, “You look weary!” “Have you been doing this for a while?”

“I’ve been up for almost five hours and I’m exhausted!” he says. This is strenuous job.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break and sharpen that saw for a few minutes?” You have enquired. “I’m sure it’d be a lot quicker.”

The guy declares forcefully, “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw.” “I’m too preoccupied with sawing!”

Sharpening the Saw is about renewing and refreshing the four parts of our natures — physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional — so that we may be more successful in our life’s work, according to Covey. It’s about investing in ourselves on a regular basis so that we can continue to enjoy the benefits. It entails working smarter rather than harder. Sharpening the Saw is what 21st-century lifestyle bloggers refer to as “self-care,” and although the word has grown overused and irritating, it has merit.


You may believe, like the man attempting to fall a tree with a dull saw, that you don’t have time to care for yourself. I understand. When I’m in the throes of one of my funks, I feel like this.

However, the fact is that you don’t have time to neglect yourself.

You’ll be able to get more done during the rest of your waking hours if you spend 30 minutes to an hour a day sharpening your metaphorical saw, and avoid wasting time with unproductive rumination, self-flagellation, angst, fatigue, and even a descent into outright depression; I know that if I flog myself too hard, for too long, and let my stress levels get too high, that can trigger the symptoms of “the black dog.” And when it comes to being unproductive, depression is at the top of the list!

While spending time on “self-care” may seem to reduce your productivity in the short term, it will considerably improve it in the long run since you won’t be stopped by physical illness, mental breakdown, or just tiredness.

Making time to care for yourself on a regular basis boosts your feeling of agency and effectiveness, in addition to helping you to get more done.

What you do to sharpen your saw is entirely up to you. It is up to YOU to make certain that you do so. You demonstrate your autonomy as an independent entity by skillfully polishing the unique blade of your life. Furthermore, you improve your proficiency. As your competence grows, so does your ability to affect the environment around you.

So, once again, you don’t have time to put off sharpening the saw. Failure, exhaustion, and mediocrity are all excuses for not sharpening the saw.

Sharpening Your Life’s Four Dimensions: Physical, Spiritual, Mental, and Social/Emotional

According to Covey, we should concentrate on four areas in our own lives: physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional.

These aspects are all intertwined. We have more mental clarity and emotional control when we feel well physically. If we have a nice social life, we will be more motivated and energetic to take care of ourselves physically. Because these human areas are interrelated, we can synergize them, allowing you to do more in less time (more on that below).

Not only are all the domains of life interrelated, but the specified action steps below can frequently affect your other domains as well; for example, exercise may improve, and can be consciously employed to enhance, not just your physical life, but also your mental, emotional, and spiritual life.

1. Physical fitness

Sharpening your physically blade guarantees that your body has the power and energy it needs to meet life’s challenges. No matter how hard you work, if you’re weary and unwell all the time, you’re not going to be very productive.


As a result, make caring for your body a top priority in your life. At the very least, concentrate on:

  1. Exercising
  2. Eating the correct foods
  3. Getting a sufficient amount of sleep each night

Those three activities may help you stay physically sharp for a long time, so start there and make them non-negotiable.  

Start experimenting with additional methods to sharpen the sword of physicality after you’ve mastered those three areas: naps, saunas, cold showers, massages, coffee reduction, and so on. Experiment with several “protocols” to determine what works best for you.

I’d want to emphasize that none of this has to take a long time. If you just have 30 minutes to exercise every day, perform 30 minutes of bodyweight exercises. Take a 20-minute power sleep during your lunch break. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on this material to get a lot of value out of it.

2. Religious

Your feeling of purpose in life is generated by the spiritual realm. It’s at the heart of who you are and what you do. If you don’t sharpen this blade, you’ll become cynical, listless, and burnt out.

Because our spiritual lives are, well, spiritual, it’s easy to overlook them. The concrete aspects of our daily lives consume so much of our attention that the more ethereal aspects of spirituality are put to the side. However, the negligence finally catches up with you. It may happen while you’re laying in bed thinking, “What am I doing with my life?” or when you lose your job or learn that a family member has cancer. Having a sense of purpose, a firm foundation of principles, comes in helpful in these situations. Spirituality may be just as “practical” as any other aspect of your life in the end.

Keeping your soul in form is similar to keeping your body in condition; just as you can’t expect to run a marathon without training, you must commit to honing your spiritual blade every day if you want it to be ready when you need it.

What methods do you use to hone your soul? Habits and spiritual practices such as:

  • Study the Bible and philosophy.
  • Self-examination is a good thing to do.
  • Participate in religious services.
  • Spend time alone and in quiet.
  • Gratitude should be cultivated.
  • Pray
  • Abstinence from eating
  • Spend time in the great outdoors.
  • Make improvements to your purpose statement.
  • Journal

I appreciate Martin Luther’s sentiment: “I have so much to accomplish today that I’ll have to spend another hour on my knees.” While you don’t need to spend an hour honing your spiritual blade every day, doing so on a daily basis may help you increase your capacity for work and lead to a more purpose-driven, meaningful existence.

3. Mental

In today’s economy, the majority of employees’ jobs are essentially “mind work.” It continuously dulls their mental saw, so performing extra mental labor in their spare time — even if it is referred to as “sharpening” — does not seem to be energizing. They just want to switch their minds off by browsing the internet or watching television. However, as Winston Churchill eloquently remarked, renewal comes from a shift in one’s activities, not from ceasing it:


“The main key is change. A man may wear out a specific portion of his mind by repeatedly utilizing and exhausting it… the worn parts of the mind can be relaxed and strengthened, not only by rest, but also by using other sections of the mind. It is not sufficient to simply turn off the lights that illuminate the major and usual area of attention; a new field of interest must be lighted… It is only when new cells are activated that relaxation, rest, and refreshment are available.”

This is to imply that the greatest approach to re-energize your dulled mind is to give it something to think about other than what it does at work. This new mental food will not only activate underutilized portions of your brain, but it will also provide you with insights and ideas that will help you succeed professionally.

Here are some ideas for fueling your brain’s healing and sharpening the mental blade:

  • Great Books to Read
  • Prepare a position paper on a subject of your choice.
  • Listen to a thought-provoking podcast.
  • Listen to a course from the Great Courses.
  • Consider taking an online course.
  • Attend a local college lecture.
  • Join a discussion group to bring your mental and social domains together.
  • Go to a museum.
  • Consider watching a documentary.

4. Social and emotional well-being

We are social creatures. While it’s true that some of us are introverts, even introverts benefit from social interactions. Several studies have revealed that socializing might help people feel less stressed and depressed. Interacting with other human brains also allows us to discover new ideas and improve our own. Sharpening our mental sword and socializing go hand in hand.

A few pointers for honing your social saw:

  • Take a pal out to lunch.
  • Write a letter to someone you care about.
  • Make new acquaintances
  • Participate in sports.
  • Take a ruck with a group of friends.
  • Get rid of the poisonous individuals in your life.
  • Dinner should be shared with your family.
  • Make a date with your significant other.
  • Organize a dinner gathering.
  • Organize a poker night.

Though Covey lumps the emotional and social domains together, I believe they should be treated separately; emotional balance is so important that it should be a separate area of focus and awareness, because when your emotional life is in order, everything else in life seems to hum along, even when things go wrong.

Here are some ideas for honing your emotional blade:

  • Meditate
  • Maintain a gratitude notebook.
  • Make an appointment with a therapist.
  • Get a copy of a book on cognitive behavioral therapy and read it.
  • Deep breathing should be practiced.
  • Take in the good vibes.
  • Self-compassion is a good thing to practice.
  • Be more robust by learning how to be more resilient.

How to Make Time for Saw Sharpening

The majority of individuals are aware of what they need to do to maintain their health. The difficulty is to really put it into practice! Here are a few tips I’ve used to keep my saw sharp on a regular basis:

Sharpening the saw should be treated as a “Big Rock.” In our post on putting first things first, we mentioned Big Rocks. A huge rock is something you place first on your schedule. Everything else is then scheduled around that item. Self-care isn’t a Big Rock for most individuals. They only do it when they have the opportunity. The problem is that unless you make sharpening the saw a top priority in your life, it will never happen.


As you plan your week, be sure to include time for sharpening the saw activities in your Big Rock schedule. Then there’s the catch: don’t make any concessions. If you have a competing activity throughout the week that isn’t life-threatening, just explain, “Sorry, I already have plans for that time.” Is it possible to change the time?”

You must limit the amount of time you spend honing the saw. And if you ever feel awful about saying “No” to others so you can concentrate on “me time,” remember that your “me time” will help you to be more productive in the things you’ve already answered “Yes.”

What can you do to eliminate negativity from your life? If you feel like you don’t have time to sharpen your saw, take a look at your life and see what you can “via negativa” out of it. What can you give up in order to have more time for yourself? Perhaps you spend too much time on the internet or on your phone? Perhaps you’re watching too much television? Perhaps you have certain duties that aren’t helping you achieve your objectives? Find those items and get rid of them, or at the very least cut down on the time you spend on them. Live a simple life.

Begin small. Covey advises honing the saw activities for one hour a day in The 7 Habits. If you don’t have an hour, make the most of it. If you only have ten minutes, make the most of it. Don’t allow perfection become the enemy of good!

Synergize! Take a cue from Habit 6 and look for methods to combine your saw sharpening tasks. You may, for example, combine rejuvenating your mental and physical skills by jogging while listening to a podcast (shameless plug: subscribe to ours!). Attending a community lecture with a friend may provide both mental and social/emotional refreshment.

Sharpen the saw when life becomes tough. Sharpen the saw when the friction in your life shifts from healthy to debilitating, and things simply feel bad. Instead of attempting to push through the resistance, spend an hour to relax and recharge your batteries so you can attack it again with fresh vigor. When I’m in a funk, I’ve grown better at taking the time to sharpen the saw. “I don’t have time to take care of myself!” instead of “I don’t have time to take care of myself!” I sleep, go on a stroll outdoors, meditate, or go to the sauna (despite the fact that I work out in my garage, I joined a $10-a-month gym just for this purpose; it’s been money well spent for me). Even doing those things for 30 minutes is enough to get me out of my rut and get me back on track. Bitching about how bad things is always loses out to action.

Wrap-Up of the 7 Habits Series

I hope you loved reading as much as I enjoyed writing about Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Rereading this classic personal development book gave me some fresh insights, but it also reminded me of aspects that I need to focus on incorporating more fully into my life.


If you haven’t already, I strongly advise you to get a copy of The 7 Habits for your own library. If you’ve already read it, go back and reread it. You’ll be astonished at how much you’ll learn about being more productive in all aspects of your life.

Listen to my interview with Stephen’s son on his father’s well-known principles: 


Read Throughout the Series

  1. Be proactive rather than reactive.
  2. Starting with the end in mind is a good way to go.
  3. Prioritize your efforts.
  4. Consider a win-win situation.
  5. Seek first to comprehend, then to be understood.
  6. Synergy is when two or more things work together (Beyond the Eye-Rolling Buzzword)
  7. Sharpen the Saw



Watch This Video-

sharpen the saw 7 habits” is a book that was written by Stephen R. Covey about how to change your daily habits and make them better for you. The book goes over 7 habits that are important to have in order to be successful.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does Sean Covey mean when he says you should sharpen the saw?

What are Sharpen the saw activities?

A: Sharpen the saw is a mode for Sawtooth. The point of this mode is to earn as many points as possible by doing tricks in an arena, through a different means than simply scoring points with your blade.

What is an example of sharpening the saw?

A: An example of sharpening the saw would be to turn it on its side and use a circular motion.

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