How I Got Less Busy (and More Happy)

Stephen Covey tells a variation of an old parable to introduce the final chapter of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

A man out for a stroll, upon seeing his neighbor furiously sawing away at an old tree, stops to ask what he’s doing. Sweating profusely, the neighbor replies, “I’m cutting down this tree.”

“How long have you been at it?” the man inquires. “You look exhausted.”

“Yeah, I’ll say,” responds the neighbor. “I’ve been out here over two hours.”

“Why don’t you take a rest and sharpen your saw?”

Exasperated now, the neighbor snaps back, “I don’t have time to sharpen my saw! Can’t you see how busy I am cutting down this tree?”

I used to be the neighbor with the ever dulling saw. Truth be told, some days I still am.

sharp sawBut now, when I find myself toiling away and making what seems like no progress on the task at hand, I stop, at least for a moment. But often for longer. I may take a 20-minute break or go for walk. Sometimes I spend a few minutes doing nothing but taking deep breaths and counting each inhale and exhale.

Just a couple minutes ago, after staring blankly at my screen for a while, I dropped down on my elbows next to my desk and held a plank until I collapsed to the floor. I’m a bit dizzy now from getting back up too quickly. My heart’s racing and my abdomen is trembling palpably. I feel good. And I’m looking at my work with fresh eyes and the words feel like they’re flowing.

I have “sharpened my saw.”

Covey’s 7th habit is not necessarily about getting “ un-stuck” in the completion of specific task or project (though I have found that its components do wonders for that). It is about continuous self-renewal, life long learning and growth. It targets four basic areas in which self-improvement can be highly leveraged to enhance, often dramatically, our experience of and performance in every other area our lives. Here are the areas Covey describes:

Physical: Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Social/Emotional: Making social and meaningful connections with others
Mental: Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spiritual: Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service

My approach has been to implement and maintain a daily practice that I adapted from James Altucher’s take on this idea (“How to Be THE LUCKIEST GUY ON THE PLANET in 4 Easy Steps”). I’m sure I’ll flesh out a few of these further in the future, but here is what that looks like for me:

Do some pushups, squats, or a plank, walk instead of drive to the library or the local Starbucks, replace some sitting time with standing time, cold showers, get 8 hours of sleep, avoid foods with added sugar
Write to/call a dear friend or loved one, reconnect with an old colleague/client/professional contact, have a coffee/drink/meal with a close friend, wrestle with my daughters, watch standup comedy, minimize or eliminate contact with people whose negative energy regularly drains my own
Read, write, play brain games on Lumosity, exercise my “idea muscle” (see James’ post, linked above)
Go outdoors, sit quietly, do a guided meditation (from YouTube, iTunes, Headspace, you name it)

When I do at least one of the things in each of these areas on a daily basis (and yes, it’s often just one), my mind is clearer, my work is more focused and I feel happier.

I also am a hell of a lot nicer to be around. Just ask my wife.

  • From which of the four areas for self-renewal could you gain the most?
  • What fun, calming or energizing activity have you put off in the spirit of getting through your to-do list?
  • How might your work improve if that activity was the “to-do” item you did first each day?

Leave me a comment, below, and for help creating and implementing a daily practice tailored just for you, shoot me a note to

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Doing Hard Things

I have been somewhat obsessed these last two weeks with the idea that initiating action, however small, can reliably produce surprisingly positive results.

In his tragic masterpiece, Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe captures this truth as beautifully as anyone:

Are you in earnest? seize this very minute—
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated—
Begin it, and then the work will be completed.

(John Alster, Translator)

But what to do when, despite initial efforts, the work is not magically completed? What if the work is hard? Continue reading

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How to Stop Putting Off Important Things

We all do it. Between work and family obligations, errands, the mere whiff of a social life and the few minutes we manage to cobble together here and there for relaxation, we carry around an endless source of excuses for why something important to us must wait until later. But later rarely comes knocking and before we know it, the stress associated with not taking action has become yet another excuse to procrastinate.


Take this blog, for example. It has been about a year since I published a new post. I say “published” because for the first few weeks, I was writing, but putting off publishing my work. This post wasn’t ready yet. That one needed more polishing. Continue reading

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Should We Believe Anything We Read?

There ought to be an addendum to the old adage, “Don’t believe everything you read.” When reading mainstream media coverage of scientific studies, change “everything” to “anything.”

Case in point: ‘Cholesterol levels linked to early signs of Alzheimer’s in brain’, an article recently published by an NBC senior health reporter, heralds a new study that found a correlation between certain cholesterol levels and evidence of certain proteins in the brain, which are known to help form the plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

While these findings may serve as the foundation for future inquiries into the possible causes of one of our most prolific killers, this is not how the NBC reporter chose to introduce her busy readers to the story (to be fair, “potential foundation for future inquiry found” does not make for a very splashy lede). Rather than honing her words to convey the subject of her report accurately, she led with the most common mistake a science reporter can make Continue reading

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