Sharpening the Saw

How you end big projects

We hosted our annual USV CEO Summit at this week. In its aftermath, I thought I’d take a few minutes to write about the “denouement” process of refreshing yourself after a big project.

In his book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey refers to this process as “sharpening the saw.”

As the metaphor goes, if you’re trying to cut down a tree and keep using the same saw, your progress will only get slower and more difficult as you progress. Instead, if you take time away from the actual work to sharpen that implement, the work that follows will be even easier. People operate the same way. So his concept of “sharpening the saw” refers to this idea that you need to recharge and refresh yourself to stay in balance personally and emotionally.

If I’m being honest, since this habit comes at the end of the book after six other power habits, that one always felt like more of afterthought to me. So I always treated it as one. Big mistake.

As you might imagine, our annual CEO Summit is a pretty big undertaking for our team. It involves months of prep and several weeks of detail-oriented planning and prep. In general, this type of work saps a lot of energy from me. It’s a high stakes, high-profile event that represents both the culmination of a year’s worth of effort and a kickstart to double down on the next year’s worth of projects. This year was even more complicated than usual due to some of the shifting roles and changes of our team dynamic at the same time.

Because of all of this, I’ve been looking ahead to this week as a relative “culmination point” for a lot of parts of my life to fall into place for about six months.

But this sort of high expectation setting can be a little dangerous. After all, the more effort you put into planning something, the greater the risk of “deflating” afterward can be.

If you’ve ever planned a big project or event — whether it was your wedding, a big launch for work, or even completing your senior thesis — you probably know what I’m talking about. You might get addicted to the work itself — the nice feeling of checking things off a box, how great it feels to be perpetually busy, and then to feed off the energy and enthusiasm of actually getting the thing done. But after that comes the drop.

And I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to get a little moody and depressed after finishing something big.

Part of this is anticipatory. Even before I’ve finished the project, I start to dread the work that’s happening next. I go through this downward spiral of thinking about all of the things I’ve been failing to accomplish at the cost of completing this one thing. I also start to anticipate missing the manic, high-energy mode of “the final stretch” phase. The final component is the feeling of my body returning to its baseline, without a perpetual state of elevated cortisol. When you add all of this together, it can be kind of a drag.

But one of the nice things about getting older is that you get to know yourself a little bit better. So this year, I planned ahead.

I told everyone on our team that Friday was an optional work day and declared right off the bat that I wouldn’t be coming in. I cleared my calendar for the weekend, making sure to free myself up for as much solo, unstructured time as possible. But I also put a placeholder for a very casual group hangout of friends at our apartment, hoping to catch up with people who I’d been unable to connect with in a meaningful way for the past few months.

Now, after all these years, I finally understand what Stephen Covey was referring to when he first coined the phrase, “Sharpen the Saw.”


Finding your reset switch

Everybody’s definition how you “sharpen the saw” is likely a little bit different.

After going through quite a few of these ups and downs of finishing up big, long-term projects, I’ve distilled my list of needs down to the following:

  • LOTS of uninterrupted, unscheduled alone time
  • Sleep
  • Content consumption (vs. production) — whether it’s seeing a show, looking at art, or just immersing myself in a completely new and unrelated project
  • A small, unrelated personal pet project (also unrelated to whatever project I just finished)
  • Some element of “personal reward” to myself (for instance, maybe I’ll buy a new dress or a new plant)
  • Time to reflect, debrief, and process
  • Sporadic small group clusters and conversations (with my spouse, a few close friends, family, etc.)
  • Eating something that makes me feel moderately healthy (or at least, doesn’t make me feel terrible)

Maybe this seems demanding. But it’s not really optional. By this point, I’ve recognized myself well enough to know that if I don’t give myself all of this, then I will absolutely be a massive grump, so I’m learning to just go with it.

For me, this weekend was my time to sharpen the saw after last week’s big event. And because I planned ahead for it, I’ve managed to avoid “the pit of despair” that has sometimes followed other big events or projects. In the past 48 hours, I’ve done what probably seems like a pretty exhausting list of things, which included reading an entire book, visiting multiple art exhibits, watching a performance, catching up with friends, and writing this blog post.

But perhaps most importantly, I gave myself a 48-hour ban on making any big decisions or starting other work-related projects in the immediate aftermath.

This can sometimes feel hard to do. There may be a lot of people asking for updates, or new projects that need to get jumpstarted as a result of finishing the old one, not to mention a barrage of new ideas. However, I know that, unless I give my brain the space to consume more than it creates (even if just for 48 hours), I won’t be able to “reset” enough to continue on course when I return.

I think that getting to know your own habits well enough to know when and how to let your instincts take over is just about the kindest thing you can do for yourself in the midst of any great pursuit. So whether you’re at the beginning, middle, or end of your own undertaking, I’d encourage you to plan ahead to give yourself the space, time, and whatever else you need to “sharpen the saw” for yourself at the end, too. You’ll thank yourself later.


Originally published at Dry Erase.