Stop Pushing When You Need to Be Sharpening

By Audrey Seymour

When the demands on your time start to feel overwhelming, is your natural response to start pushing to get things done and fit everything in?  It happens to nearly all of us, and the cost of that automatic response is huge. It could even be a major factor preventing you from fulfilling the mission that calls you.

Sisyphus metaphor. Man rolling huge concrete ball up hill. Sisyphean work, task.

There’s an old story about a wood-chopping contest between a young man and a village elder. While the young man chopped continually and furiously, the old man sat down for 20 minutes every hour. “I know who’s going to win!” I thought, when I first heard the story.

Well, it does turn out that the old man wins the wood chopping contest, but not for the reason you might think. Here’s how the story ends:

“How could you have chopped more wood than I?” asked the puzzled young man. “I chopped more strongly and longer!” “Ah” said the old man. “You didn’t notice that while I was sitting down, I was sharpening my axe.”

Do you find yourself thinking that if you just push a bit longer to get through what’s in front of you, you’ll get caught up and eventually your life will align with your calling?  Have you noticed that the act of pushing shuts off your voice of inner wisdom, and that the demands from the outer world never actually slow down?

Instead, you need to regularly stop and “sharpen your axe.” You need to not only cut away that which is not yours to do right now by either delegating, delaying or deleting the task, but you also need to ensure that you are cutting in the right direction! At the pace things are changing today, something that was highly purposeful for you 6 months ago may now actually be a distraction.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
~ Peter Drucker

Many of us are faced with a work ethic we inherited from our parents’ generation and the unique challenges of their era. From this perspective we experience a greater sense of value when we are in the act of pushing to produce. Do you feel guilty when you are not accomplishing something? Have you ever found yourself thinking “At least I’m doing something!” even when nothing seems to be working?

If you feel frozen in fear it can be helpful sometimes to just take an action to get your energy moving again. However, it is common to find ourselves pushing through tasks that we “have to do” or events that we “have to attend.” Watch out for those “have to”s. Examine every one of them!

For each “have to do,” list all the reasons you are doing it. Get curious – is it moving you closer to the fulfillment of your purpose?  Does it bring you closer to those you love?  Or is keeping this item on your list based on the fear that no one else can do what you do, or that you’d be hated for letting others down?

Another important question is, what is the cost to you and others if you continue simply pushing harder as a response to increasing challenges?

One of the most challenging times in my life was when I had to leave my software developer job because the cumulative injuries to certain joints and nerves were severe.  I could no longer simply push through what was needed because I was facing the prospect of neck fusion surgery. When the company offered me more money to stay I told them “Sorry, I only have one neck!”

Quitting my post as project manager and lead engineer in the midst of a major project was frightening because it flew in the face of every value I had.  Not only did it feel like I was abandoning the team I had nurtured and turned around from uncooperative competition to collaborative success, but I knew I would be blackballed and never be able to find work in that field again.

Yet what actually happened was that I was able to mentor one promising young engineer who stepped up to skillfully take over to manage the team. And then an entrepreneur friend had an emergent need for someone to take over the business side of his training company. That company sent me to coaching school so it could have an internal coach, and this series of events thus launched a new and much more purposeful direction for my life.

The hidden costs of constantly pushing can creep up on you months or years later when injury, burnout or boredom shows up. Do you feel the restlessness that something is seriously missing? Is it hard to remember why you wanted to be in this business or take that job in the first place? You may not need a new job or a different business direction. You may only need to sharpen your approach to getting things done.

What would sharpening your axe mean in your line of work?

  • Perhaps you’ve been so busy attending every possible networking event that you don’t have time to take courses to stay current in your field. Imagine instead choosing only the events that would draw your ideal clients and colleagues, and then getting re-inspired with a valuable class in your free time.
  • Perhaps you’re feeling that your employer is moving in a direction that is less exciting to you, but you’ve been on autopilot following their agenda.  What would it be like to set aside the time to make a proposal for an initiative that would make you come alive again?
  • Perhaps your work places a value on presence, but you book your clients so closely together that you are edgy by the end of the day. Sharpening your axe might mean scheduling a 5-minute meditation break between each meeting to keep your presence clear and leave you energized instead of burned out by the end of the day.
  • Or perhaps your company is investing an uncomfortable amount of resources trying to sell a struggling product. Imagine instead taking the time to explore options for a totally new product that would serve your customers better and therefore sell better.

Only by being willing to step outside of the inertia of “pushing to get it done” and facing the discomfort of apparent “unproductivity” or loss of approval will you be able to cut through old patterns. It is only then that you will be able to reorient yourself to your most purposeful path.