- The first step is to make a commitment to learning. This includes awareness of what you want to learn. What do you need to be knowledgeable about? What skills do you need to learn?
- The second step is to decide HOW. Are you a reader? If so, you will doubtless seeks books, articles and other written material about your chosen topic. If you are not a reader, what other alternatives are there? Will you look for video material? Will you find audiobooks? Will you go on a course of training?
- The third step is to take action. Do the learning. Read the books and articles. Attend the training.
- And the fourth and most crucial step is to apply what you have learned. Experiment. Play with it. See what works and doesn't work for you. Make modifications so that it becomes your own.
With thanks to Stephen Covey for the concept of "Sharpen the Saw" per his 7th habit (of Highly Effective People), today we focus on staying mentally sharp. This is about a commitment to lifelong learning in order to stay relevant and grow both professionally and as a human being.
I chose Sharpen the Saw as my topic for this month partly because this month marks the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere. As the weather gets cooler and the days shorter, we tend to let things go in the health department. We exercise less because it is too dark or too cold. We eat comfort food because it is so …. comforting. We may also change our sleep patterns, sleeping longer than we did in the summer months.
The impact of this is on our energy levels, our weight, our fitness and on our mental sharpness. I am tackling this topic now in the hopes that it will give us all a nudge to do things differently this year.
Sharpening the Saw in the physical dimension is about diet, exercise, relaxation and sleep – and I’ll talk a little bit about each one.
Firstly diet. I am not about to preach to you about how to eat – if you are reading this article, then I am going to assume that you already know what does and does not work for your own body. You probably also know exactly how you repeatedly get in your own way. I know how my body works. I gain weight very easily when I eat sugar and starch – bread, rice, potatoes, pasta. I find it very easy to sustain a steady, healthy weight if a practice 16:8 fasting (I fast between 8.00pm and 12.00 midday, and contain all my meals to within the remaining 8 hours). When I first started doing it, I was interested to note that it had no negative impact on my energy levels in the morning at all. I have made it my business to educate myself about eating healthily. What I do know is this – I have experienced it myself, observed it in my clients and it is borne out in the scientific research: a diet high in sugar and starch negatively affects your energy levels and mental sharpness.
This is the very reason that when I am facilitating workshops I specifically request fruit and nuts as snacks rather than muffins, biscuits and sandwiches. It is also why I specifically request that lunches be low in carbohydrates. They make you sleepy and mentally sluggish.
Recommendation: Educate yourself on the latest thinking regarding healthy eating – it is not low fat and high carbs; it is high healthy fats and low carbs. Choose to feed your body with the good stuff – and make up your mind that you like it, too!
The second critical aspect is exercise. I believe that one of the best inventions is the step counter. It awakens a natural competitiveness or goal-directedness in us. It is enormously satisfying to reach those 10 000 steps – not to mention just plain good for us. People who use a step monitor are more likely to exercise regularly and consistently than those who don’t for this very reason. Regular exercise is essential for mental sharpness. Oh I’m sure everyone knows people who seldom move a muscle and are as sharp as a knife. Research among people of all ages shows that regular exercise enhances cognitive function – some of the most fascinating is among children and the elderly. In children regular exercise predicts better academic performance; and in the elderly it predicts improved executive functioning and slows any cognitive decline that may have occurred. Aside from that, it is good for your sense of humour and overall sense of well-being.
Recommendation: even if the weather is getting cooler and the days shorter, schedule a time for exercise that elevates your heart rate. Go for a walk in the middle of the day – or have walking meetings with a colleague. Go to the gym even if you’d rather stay in bed or head straight home. Make a commitment to yourself and just do it differently this winter than you did last winter.
The third aspect of taking care of your body is sleep. We all have different rhythms – some people cannot function on less than 8 hours of sleep a night, and others can only sleep for 4 or 5 hours. The important thing is to get enough sleep for you! Playing video games (chilling) until 2.00am and then crawling out of bed bleary eyed and foggy and 6.30 is just dumb. If you were playing games in order to relax, but ended up being sleep-deprived, then you are defeating the object entirely. Good quality sleep is essential to mental functioning. There is also really solid research evidence into the value of a power nap – 20 minutes of sleep early in the afternoon makes for vastly improved mental functioning through the afternoon! Your challenge may be to turn the power nap into an acceptable practice in your workplace!
Recommendation: be sure to get enough quality sleep for you – and try the power nap. It’s a real winner, and a favourite of mine!
The last aspect of physical well-being that I’d like to touch on is relaxation. We need to allow ourselves time out. Time to just be – whether it is playing with your children or grandchildren; reading a book; having a glass of your favourite tipple while chatting with your significant person; bath time with your children or by yourself. When you allow yourself this time – do what you are doing! It defeats the object to be “chilling with the kids” while worrying that you should be working on that report. If you have set aside that time along with all your regular busyness, then just do what you are doing.
Recommendation: Develop the mental discipline of doing what you are doing – if you are out on your bicycle, don’t worry that you should be preparing your presentation. That will happen at the time set aside for it. If you are having a glass of wine and a catch-up with your partner before you check your emails for the last time today, then just do that. Whenever your mind wanders to something that you “should be doing instead”, bring it back and just do what you are doing.
My final question: Are you going to wake up from your winter slumber in October and try and recover your summer bod in a matter of weeks? Or are you going to sail through the chilly winter months hot and healthy and full of energy?
One of the first “personal growth” books I ever read was Stephen R. Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. I read it in about 1992, and I still use it repeatedly in my life and work. His 7th habit was called “Sharpen the Saw” and it was about taking care of your most valuable resource – YOURSELF.
The name comes from a quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln which goes “If I had six hours to cut down a tree, I'd spend the first four sharpening the saw”. It is based on the idea that you cannot give what you don’t have. You can’t share your knowledge or experience if you don’t have any; you can’t give your energy to anything if you don’t have any; you can’t give love if you don’t have love to give. Sharpening the saw is about the little things that you do to continually become the best version of yourself that you can be.
When we don’t do it, we may not feel it immediately, but sooner or later we will pay the price in terms of:
Sharpening the saw is probably the ultimate illustration of how important balance is in one’s life. Too many people claim that they “don’t have time”. They don’t have time to eat healthily. They don’t have time to read. They don’t have time to spend with important people in their work and personal lives. They don’t have time to meditate and pray.
Here are some tips to help you achieve better balance and make sure that you keep your own saw sharp:
In subsequent articles to this one, I will elaborate on specific aspects of sharpening the saw. But why not start now? If you are one of those people who “doesn’t have time”, pick just one idea from the list above and do it for a week. Then pick a second idea and add it to what you are doing. And another one in the third week. While you are doing this, pay attention to your energy levels.
I am confident that you will find that you are MORE productive. Why? Because when you sharpen the saw, it improves your energy, your focus and the quality of your thinking. So you get more done in less time – and you are happier and feel better.