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Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe’.

Clearly, one should invest more time in preparation.

So often I hear leaders, team members and individuals say they don’t have the time to prepare in advance, yet preparing actually saves you time. It also lowers the chances of mistakes, failures, miscalculations and wrongdoings.

This applies to any areas of your career, life, finances or health. Being prepared reduces angst, fear, anxiety and panic.

In the wise words of Dale Carnegie, ‘An hour of planning can save you 10 hours of doing’.

Preparation makes perfect

Imagine doing a speech with no preparation. I don’t know about you, but I would be shaking in my boots.

This reminds me of a colleague many moons ago who completely forgot we were supposed to present to the leadership team.

His words were, ‘have no fear, it will all work out and I’ll just have to wing it today, like most days!’

I instantly felt the palms of my hands filling up with perspiration and knew I was in for a ride.

You see, when you ‘just wing it’, others will know that you haven’t prepared. For example, as a student or participant in class, when you don’t prepare, it is very obvious.

Sharpening the saw

Today, Abraham Lincoln’s sharpened axe analogy is as relevant as ever, so much so that it has been reinterpreted and extended in modern literature.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey shares a story of a man who was walking through the forest, when all of a sudden, he came across a frustrated lumberjack.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘Can’t you see?’ comes the impatient reply. ‘I’m sawing down this tree.’

‘You look exhausted!’ he exclaimed. ‘How long have you been at it?’

‘Over five hours,’ he returns, ‘and I’m beat! This is hard work.’

‘Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?’ he inquires. ‘I’m sure it would go a lot faster.’

I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,’ the man says emphatically. ‘I’m too busy sawing!’

The man walked off shaking his head and kept walking, leaving the lumberjack to his powerless frustrations.

Through this story, Stephen Covey shows us that sharpening the saw is about taking the time to renew and refresh the four dimensions of our nature — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually — so that we’re more effective in our life’s work.

It is the balancing and renewal of your resources, energy and health to create a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle.

This is constant improvement of one’s self in order to be a better human being and to sharpen one’s skills in order to achieve better results.

You can do this only if you prepare, plan and put it all into practice.

Working smarter, not harder

Preparation and planning are key elements for you to work smarter and not harder.

This will assist you getting ready and then mapping it out.

Look at it this way: 

  • Would you go to an interview without preparing?
  • Would you sit through an examination without preparing?
  • Would you do a TED talk without preparing?

If you want to succeed, the answer would be, of course, ‘no’.

Mind, body and spirit

Preparation is how you are going to get yourself ready mentally, emotionally and physically.

Depending on what lies ahead, mentally preparing can involve rehearsing. For example, if you will be giving a keynote, you need to practice your speech as much as possible beforehand. In other cases, it can simply be doing the necessary research. For a job interview, this means learning everything you can about the company and your desired role. To do well in a test, you need to study to the best of your abilities.

Regardless of your situation, knowledge is power.

On an emotional level, preparation can mean developing the reassurance and confidence to succeed. In order to accomplish a task, project or goal, you first need to ensure that you are well. Take the time to tend to your emotional needs and work through any underlying issues. Practice being present through meditation, then project yourself into the situation through visualisation.

You are investing this time in your wellbeing, your future and, most importantly, yourself.

If we go back to the story of the lumberjack, preparing yourself physically could be as simple as making sure you are eating the right food and getting enough sleep and exercise. Just like sharpening the blade, the physical element for the lumberjack to chop the tree down, your physical wellbeing is essential.

Food, sleep and exercise are your non-negotiables.

To read the second piece in this two-part series on the importance of preparation, click here.