How I “Sharpen My Axe” Each Day – and Why

Last week, I wrote an article about goal-oriented paper planners. During that article, I mentioned that I actually use three planners/journals and I update them on a twice-daily basis, along with using a few digital tools to help. A lot of readers asked questions about this practice, so I thought I’d share the details of it.

The reason I invest that effort into planners and such – and the reason why I have a 90 minute morning routine and a few other daily routines that don’t seem outwardly productive – is best summarized as “sharpening the axe.”

There’s an apocryphal Abraham Lincoln quote that goes something like this: Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

The idea behind that quote is that if you invest time up front in preparing to do a task well, you will perform that task with much higher quality and efficiency than you ever would have done otherwise. Obviously, there’s a balance there – if you spend all of your time preparing, you don’t accomplish anything – but I found that throughout much of my life, I’ve spent far too little time and effort “sharpening the axe” and that has caused me to waste a lot of time and effort in actual execution of the things I want to and need to get done.

Over the last several years, I’ve gradually moved in the direction of “axe sharpening” as a significant daily routine that, these days, eats up two or three waking hours. Yes, I spend that much time preparing for a typical day, and I’ve found that devoting that much time to preparing for the day and thinking about what’s to come and also reflecting a bit on what I’ve recently done has made my usual days so much more efficient that I not only recover more time than what I invested, but almost everything I do is more sensible and of higher quality than before.

It has made me more attentive to my wife and a better husband. It has made me more in tune with my kids and a better father. It’s enabled me to find more time and more focus for learning and reading and for genuine leisure. It has basically led to growth in every sphere of my life.

What does that look like for me? It looks something like this.

My Daily “Axe Sharpening”

For starters, I aim to get enough sleep so that I wake up naturally without an alarm. That means I go to bed each night by 10 PM at the absolute latest, and often earlier than that. Most days, I naturally arise between 5 AM and 6 AM, usually closer to 5 AM. I do set an alarm, but it’s usually there in case I have a bad night of sleep or something and it’s more of a “you should have been up well before now” kind of thing.

This habit of “natural rising” means I get as much sleep as my body needs. My night of sleep is not artificially shortened by an alarm clock.

What about staying up late? Sometimes, I’ll do that if there’s a good reason – a date night with my wife, friends staying late after dinner, some sort of special social occasion, and so on. As a normal routine, however, I aim to be in bed by 10 PM at the latest.

Okay, so I’m up at around 5:30 AM. Most of the rest of the house isn’t going to arise for about an hour and fifteen minutes. What do I do with that time?

I stretch and also drink a lot of water to wake myself up. I spend about ten minutes stretching and drinking the contents of a 32 ounce water bottle from the fridge. That water bottle is one I filled the night before and it usually has a little bit of some kind of citrus in it – lemon juice or grapefruit juice or something like that. I usually do the first half of this routine or, sometimes, the whole thing, depending on how I feel. That little process makes me feel limber and awake.

At that point, I have about an hour before everyone wakes up, but I don’t necessarily know exactly when they’re going to wake up. It’s during that time where I sit down with my three paper journals and planners and my iPad and plot out my day.

I usually start out by looking at my main daily paper planner, which is a Momentum Planner, and see what I already have written there for the day. I’ve usually filled this out a little the night before and I just look at it for a minute to figure out what’s specifically coming up that day. The Momentum Planner, as I noted in the earlier post, is a goal-oriented planner that’s oriented around setting a few big goals for the year and then gradually breaking them down into daily actions, so a page in the planner usually lists the things I want to do today to move forward on my big goals. It’s usually a handful of about 10 items on a to-do list, along with a simplified version of today’s schedule.

At this point, I cross-check that page with my main digital calendar and my main digital to-do list. Those things are what I look at throughout the day as I’m going through my tasks and appointments – I don’t keep looking back at my paper planner all the time. I’m mostly making sure that there’s nothing in the paper planner that’s not in the digital calendar or to-do list.

So, why have both? The act of writing things down on paper is my time to think about what I should actually be doing. That’s the point where I’m thinking about things. When I’m using the digital tools throughout the day, I don’t think about what’s listed there and whether that’s really what I should be doing right now. I just trust it and do what it says, because I know I’ve already thought about the day’s priorities.

Doing this cross-checking loads up my mind with the handful of things that I’m most concerned about in my life, and that’s the point I open up a blank paper notebook, set a timer for 30 or 40 minutes (depending on how much time I have that morning), and just brain dump. I pick up the pen and just start writing out what’s on my mind. I don’t really try to organize it in any way; rather, I find that as I’m writing, it all kind of self-organizes, with sensible thought following sensible thought. That period of 30-40 minutes usually leads me to some kind of sensible conclusion on one or two things that are bothering me in my life, and those things almost always lead me right back to the paper planner, where I often find myself turning those thoughts into actual actions on my to-do list, which I then migrate into my digital tools once I’ve thought it through and come up with something that’s specifically actionable.

Some days, I don’t come up with anything actionable. I might find myself delving into an intellectual idea in my journal or into some aspect of my life that doesn’t really lead to action. That’s fine. Other days, I come up with a bunch of stuff. That’s fine, too.

I find that this process is incredibly valuable at calming my mind and helping me focus on the task at hand throughout the day. It’s like I’ve removed the one or two things that are most likely to distract me during a given day from my head, and that makes it so much easier to just focus on the task at hand.

As I go through the day, my main worries are dealt with, so they’re not distracting me. What I need to do next is in a trusted system, so it’s not distracting me. I’m well rested, so I’m not distracted by fatigue. I am sharpening that axe, big time.

At this point, I prioritize my tasks for the day. I pick one to three things that are top priority and I label them as “priority 1” in my to-do app. I pick maybe three more things that are “priority 2” and maybe three or four more that are “priority 3,” and label each of those. Mostly, these are my key work tasks and key life tasks, along with a few key things to keep moving my big goals forward. I usually get through all of them (and some more), but I make a point to do the “priority 1” ones first.

The last thing I do during that early morning stretch is that I review the habits I’m working on. I use my Clear habit journal for this, mostly because it has a really slick habit tracking table at the back. I spend some time looking at each item on that list and visualizing myself nailing that habit today.

A sampling of the habits I’m currently working on:
+ Vegan before 6 (meaning I eat only vegan stuff before supper)
+ Listen before talking
+ Speak positively when communicating digitally (I’m trying to be positive when texting, participating on social media, etc.)
+ Clean up (working on keeping house and working area cleaner throughout the day)
… and so on.

I spend a minute or so visualizing myself nailing each of those habits at some point during the day. I imagine myself eating some oatmeal for breakfast and a salad for lunch. I visualize myself listening to each of my kids after school without saying anything, just trying to absorb what they’re telling me. I visualize myself saying positive things when texting people today. I visualize myself cleaning up better. This system is really helpful in terms of reinforcing better habits – things I do routinely throughout the day.

At this point, my wife and kids are stirring, so I help them get ready for their day. My kids all go to school and my wife is a teacher, so they’re all out of the house by about 7:20.

After that, I usually just get the day started. I pour myself a cup of coffee, head to my desk, turn off distractions, and get down to it with a work session.

Throughout the day, there are a few other things I try to do to keep my axe sharpened.

I spend about an hour reading something that really makes me think and challenges me, usually in a distraction-free setting. I usually do this after the kids get home but before our evening activities and dinner preparation begin in earnest. I usually do it when they’re doing homework.

I meditate twice for 15-20 minutes each. This calms my mind and quiets a lot of that endless mental chatter and helps me focus, particularly when I do it every single day without fail – it seems to gradually build on itself. This has such a powerful calming effect on me at this point that I think I’ll do it every day for the rest of my life, but it took a lot of fits and starts and periods where I thought it was useless to get to that point. I usually meditate once right around lunchtime, and then do it again sometime in the early evening. I used to do it in the morning, but I found that I get more value out of it later in the day.

I exercise at some point during the day, usually for about an hour – sometimes it’s a taekwondo class, while at other times it’s a routine at home. I usually do this around noon, unless there’s a taekwondo class in the evening, then I do it in the evening.

I usually go on at least one walk of some length, a mile at minimum, but often a lot longer than that if the weather is cooperative. I have some specific “loops” that I walk of various lengths – a mile loop, a three mile loop, and a five mile loop. I usually do this in the mid-afternoon, before the kids come home, and I choose a loop that will get me back to the house before they’re due to get home.

I usually have two blocks of uninterrupted work on a given day, one from about 7:30 AM to about 11:30 AM, and then a shorter one in the afternoon from about 1 PM to about 2:30 PM. Within those, I stop about every 40-45 minutes for a five minute break to stretch a little and walk around, but I don’t set an actual timer and if I fall into a “flow state” where I lose track of time, it’s okay. I only have timers for things I need to be doing at a specific time.

Most of the rest of the day is filled with blocks of time with a certain focus. I plug in those blocks around the other scheduled things in my day, right in my calendar. For example, I usually have a block of time to spend with my kids when they get home from school, about 30 minutes where I talk to each of them about their day while I do household chores right alongside them. I usually have a block of time with Sarah in the evening. On the weekends, I usually have a large block on one of the days devoted to a hobby.

Each evening, I have a block of time where I finish up my day by doing a handful of things, usually with my journals. I go through and “score” my habits that I considered that morning, giving myself a score of 1 to 10 based on how hard I tried to make those habits happen. I’m more concerned about awareness and effort than about results, because days vary so much. I tend to set up my planner for the next day or two, moving anything important from my digital tools into that planner, and reflecting on what I need to do tomorrow to move my big goals forward and coming up with a few to-dos for the next day, which I write by hand and then transfer into my digital tools. I also write a single line (or maybe two) about my day in a journal, one that serves as a record of my days. This usually takes about 15 minutes or so and I usually do it about an hour before bed, before I start getting sleepy and my thoughts get mushy.

Once a week, I do a longer morning review of everything. I spend maybe an extra hour in the morning going through all of the tasks left undone from the week, figuring out what things are important for the following week, and so on. On a monthly basis, I do an even longer one, stepping out to the month-sized range, and on a quarterly basis, I spend most of a day thinking about my life in that way. This usually happens on Sunday mornings before everyone is up, with the quarterly ones often happening on a Friday.

Do I really do all of this every day? Most days, yes. There’s definitely some variability if I’m traveling or if there’s something exceptional going on, but on ordinary days when I’m at home, I do something close to this every single day, and I’ve been doing something on the order of this for several years now. Sometimes I’ll try adding a new piece, or I’ll try a new variant of something I’m doing, or I’ll drop a piece if it’s not working or giving me value, but the idea that I spend some time each day “sharpening the axe” is true pretty much every day.

There are a lot of reasons for doing this, but the biggest one is that it really clears my mind out and prepares it for the day. When I actually start in on the things I want to do today, usually around 8 AM on a given day, this routine has done a lot to really heighten my focus.

I should also note that I don’t watch much television at all, and I usually leave my phone in a very aggressive “do not disturb” mode where the only notifications that get through are calls and texts from my wife and kids and their schools. I try to lead a minimally distracted life.

The Benefits of “Axe Sharpening”

As I noted in a few places throughout this article, I find that there are a ton of benefits to spending this much time each day in some form of preparation rather than just “doing stuff.”

For starters, when I start working, my head is clear and full of distraction. I know that everything I need to know is in a trusted system and I just don’t have to think about it at all. I’ve spent time dredging the things I’m worried about out of my head so that they’re in some kind of actionable place as well. What’s left is focus. I don’t feel distracted by worry or by things I need to remember or anything like that. I just do the things on my to-do list and go to the things on my calendar, and I can focus on those things intensely.

Also, I feel well rested and healthy. I find that getting adequate sleep and stretching and exercise, coupled with my efforts to eat a healthy diet, goes a long way toward contributing to that. If I don’t eat well or let the exercise start to slack, I feel worse – less able to focus, less energy, and so on. Part of being able to have a great day is that I’m well rested, have my body performing as well as I can thanks to the sleep and good food and stretching and exercise, and have my mind performing as well as I can with the sleep and meditation and minimal distraction. All of that aiming for “optimum performance” means that I’m far more productive in terms of things I can get done in an hour than I would be if I didn’t do any of it. Feeling good and rested makes all the difference.

A final thing worth noting is that I’m constantly tweaking my direction so that I don’t feel like I’m headed toward goals I don’t care about any more. I don’t commit to long term goals without a lot of thought, and I’m open to changing them. With shorter term goals, I’m constantly revising and evaluating them. The direction I’m headed on any given day is a direction I’m pretty happy with, and thus I know those ordinary things on my to-do list and calendar are ushering me toward a life I’m happy about.

In the end, the two hours or so I spend “sharpening the axe” each day are paid back in spades. I get a lot of things done each day, they’re important things (meaning I gave time to considering whether they’re actually beneficial to my life over the long haul), and I’m happy with them.

I don’t expect this exact system to work well for anyone else, but I know it works well for me as a married father of three with a flexible but deadline-driven career, a number of hobbies, and a lot of good relationships. I think that some degree of “sharpening the axe” is good for anyone who ever feels like they have a lot on their plate, or even if you don’t feel all that busy but you find that you have things often “slipping through the cracks.”

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.