Healing Pain by Sharpening the Saw

The last positive passage spoke of pain at work. A young friend sent me a remarkable email in response. He had been struggling at work. He wrote of Steven R. Covey’s concept of breaking the logic of task pursuit and doing self-maintenance. It is called “sharpening the saw.” My friend tells what he did and then describes the impact at work. His account holds many notions for reducing our own pain at work.

I felt that I had been telling myself a little lie lately.  I have been telling myself something along the lines of, “I’m doing everything I can.  My priorities are in order and I’m working as hard as I can.”

But the more I thought and prayed about it, I realized my priorities had gotten out of whack.  Sometimes I had been reading work email and checking the news when I should have been engaged in spiritual disciplines or focused on family members’ needs or renewing myself through playing the guitar or writing poetry.  In this way, I had been
trying to “use my saw more” instead of taking a break to sharpen the blade.

I made a couple of decisions.  First, I rearranged the icons on my smartphone screen.  I buried the news icons a little deeper so I will stop opening them out of habit.  Instead, I will turn to them when I am thoughtfully seeking news–and not just filling time.  Second, I recommitted to putting first things first.  During a run in the late afternoon, I thought about when I can do the daily planning and sharpening activities that are so important.

I woke up this morning feeling good.  For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel anxious about going back to work.

He followed up this account by sharing what happened next. It is quite impressive. Here is what he had to say.

Yesterday I had a great day at work.  Here are some of the things I did that helped make it such a great day:

–I spent time planning Thursday evening.  I looked at my calendar and my next action list.  I brainstormed what I would put in my gratitude email.

–When I woke up Friday morning, I put first things first: I prayed and read the scriptures and wrote a gratitude email and ate breakfast.

–On the train, instead of reading the news or diving into work email, I chose to read, edit, and write poetry–an important goal of mine that helps renew me mentally and emotionally.
–When I got to work, I followed the counsel of an article I read on Thursday.  Before doing any work, I took a blank sheet of paper and wrote a “short list” of the things I needed to do to call the workday a success.  The list included a few important, time-sensitive assignments that I knew my bosses were expecting from me.  The list also included writing a first draft of something very important that’s due in mid-April.  It also included thanking my coworkers who covered for me Thursday and going to the gym.

–As I changed my clothes, I made the conscious decision to listen to the news update from NPR, but I didn’t open any news sites on my computer screen.  This is a big change for me.  I had gotten into the habit of opening two or three news sites in the morning and often I got lost in the stories there.  I also decided I wouldn’t listen to the news in the late afternoon.  I was consciously reducing my voluntary intake of news items.  (I still ended up reading a LOT of news during the course of my workday because it’s part of my job.)

–Although I prioritized the items on my “short list,” I also triaged my email inbox.  I followed the patterns from Getting Things Done by David Allen.  First, I would read the email.  Then I would determine what the next step was.  If that next step took less than two minutes, I did it immediately.  If it took more, I put it on my next actions list and tried to gauge its importance (should it go on my “short list?”).

–After triaging my email this way, I again focused on the “short list.”  As I pushed things forward, I moved items from my next action list to a follow-up section so I could track what I was waiting for from other people.

–I tried really hard to focus on just one thing at a time and finish each thought before moving on to another.  This is a key for me because often what I’ve done in the past is look at an email and if I don’t know what to do with it, I’ll just move on to the next email
with the plan to go back to it when I have time.  That means I often waste time and concentration (one of my rarest commodities) as I looked at one email multiple times without making a decision on it.

–A coworker and friend named Bev stopped at my office door to see me.  I took my hands away from my computer and stepped toward Bev and gave her my full attention.  It dawned on me that interactions like this with my coworkers help renew and strengthen me when I focus on them.  That might seem obvious, but lately I had sometimes seen such interactions as annoying or wasting my time because I thought they took me away from accomplishing my workload.  I realized they actually help me
accomplish my workload by 1) giving me a short break that helps my energy return and 2) connect me more deeply to the people I work with so our synergy on shared projects is greater.

–I finished most of my “short list” before noon which gave me a boost of confidence.  I felt like I was in the bonus for the rest of the day.

Reflection

  • How often do you feel depressed at work?
  • Which of his actions is most impressive?
  • What could you do differently this week?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?
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