Sharpen The Saw

The Bald Eagle is America’s symbol for freedom. I live in an area where many Bald Eagles nest and it’s hard not to feel the power and freedom that emanates from this beautiful bird of prey.

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” — Albert Camus

I equate time to freedom because until we can travel backwards in time, time is the only non-renewable and non-replenishable resource that we’ve got — sooner or later, we’ll run out of it. So when I first read Steven Covey’s paramount non-fiction best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People many years ago, I felt as many did; completely inspired by his approach to time management and his philosophy for modern living based on solid ethical principles. It was the preeminent self-help book that launched the self-help industry into the stratosphere. Some critics argued that Covey sold what seemed like common sense and built a financial empire from it, but like Covey himself said, common sense isn’t common practice.

The 7 Habits from the Steven Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

As artists, we know that much of what we “should” do, we don’t do.  For example, why can’t we see the flaws of our work while we’re doing it but only afterwards? Why do things such as twinning, even spacing, or repetitive acting choices continue to plaque our craft? Why are good rituals so hard to form while bad habits stick like gum on your boots? And why do we continue to repeat the same mistakes despite the pain that it causes us?

Notes by Disney veteran and legendary illustrator, Carson Van Osten, on the matters of twinning in animation posing.

The answer, so it seems, appear to lie in the underlying approach to how we view our time and how we use it.  Now, while Covey listed some brilliant principles on how to live, I have to date, only retained two concepts from his writing, namely his Time Management Matrix and his seventh and final habit Sharpen The Saw. Both are tied to the belief in doing the right things and doing them regularly.

The Covey Time Management Matrix:

The Covey Time Management Matrix, consisting of the four quadrants of time usage, couldn’t be more apt in our current times of rushing, obsessing with busyness and addiction to convenient technology and social media.

Since us artists are people too, we’re just as susceptible to the pull of immediacy both at work and outside of work. Important short term matters such as approaching deadlines and other emergencies naturally demand our attention — that’s biological. We need to survive before we can work on improving our efficiencies and before we can find deeper meaning and fulfillment.  These are “Quadrant I” activities, the ones we have to live with and must do. This quadrant will always exist, that’s just life. But just surviving is not life — zombies move too — because being consumed with urgent demands is both taxing and soul destroying.

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” — C.S. Lewis

Artists, of all people, can ill afford to spend their time on unimportant matters, whether they be urgent or not. Quadrant III and IV activities are such time wasters, things that offer little value. Checking or answering every text message or Facebook posting/response may seem harmless but they distract from our current duties. In fact, they destroy our abilities to concentrate, which has very serious consequences and leads to more urgent problems and habitual stress.

But the same goes with spending hours and hours on excessive television watching, video gaming or mindless browsing on the internet (who isn’t guilty of that?) If you’re gonna take time for rest and leisure, do it right. Same thing applies for screwing around during a recess from work — something that may seem like a legitimate break from some hard time in front of the computer but is often energy spent unwisely dealing with trivia, or worse, whining and complaining about projects or people. That’s neither fruitful nor restful. A much wiser course of action would be take a walk out in the fresh air and empty the mind of the physical and emotional intensity that’s been hard at work for the last couple of hours.

Art Criticism by Honoré Daumier. There are those that do and those that talk. The masterful Daumier made many brilliant caricatures of societal behavior.

In order to develop our craft, we need time to explore our artistry. We need to create space for visual education, skill development, exploration and research. You can’t think outside of the box if you can’t even see the box. Study is important; history and reflection instruct. This is all Quadrant II activity — activity that requires what we call slow time — where we can engage in high value actions that are pragmatic and deeply fulfilling. The further beauty of Quadrant II activities is that they reduce the amount of Quadrant I emergencies. The time we put into planning our work properly (instead habitually rushing right into it) saves us time by limited the odds of having to re-do it. Those evenings or weekends diligently spent studying our craft or taking supplementary seminars or private lessons, improves our visual vocabulary and even address “blind spots” in the approach to our artistry. Fundamentally, raising our skill set raises our efficiencies on the job and helps to limit the number of high urgency demands created by poor preparation or inadequacy. Proper fun and restful activities that aid in physical recovery and improve mental clarity also serve as wonderful Quadrant II activities.

A well-planned weekend for some real fun with friends/family or engaging in comprehensive outdoor activities provide both pure release from “work” and give us something to look forward to during the week.

Sharpening The Saw (Habit #7)

Knowing the quadrants of time expenditure is fine and dandy, but applying it without a game plan is difficult. It’s all too easy to be swept up into our old ways. Saying to ourselves “someday, I’ll lose that extra body weight or work on my timing issues” isn’t going to amount anything more than a hill of beans. One way I personally deal with this is ensuring that I practice what Steven Covey calls “Sharpen The Saw.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln.

Wisdom is something that is commonly ignored in today’s me-me-me, rush-rush-rush society. We want quick answers, we don’t read unless it’s entertainment, and we certainly don’t make time to listen and watch things patiently. It’s much easier to buy a solution than to build or create one on our own. But oh, how fulfilling it is to make and create things ourselves! Are we not artists?

The locomotive is one of the greatest inventions in human history. Creativity is not only the best solution to our problems, it may be the only solution to the problems we face today.

“Only someone who is well prepared has the opportunity to improvise.” — Ingmar Bergman

But to create and build requires time and skill. Spending the hours sharpening the saw equates to being prepared for success. Success rarely comes to those that aren’t ready for it. And if it were to arrive at the hands of the unprepared, the unprepared are ill prepared to manage it . (This probably explains why weak talents who achieve quick and early acclaim have incredibly short careers and why lottery winners are often financially worse off two years after winning the prize money than before they hit the jackpot). Our minds simply won’t allow us to skip any steps. Once again, there are no shortcuts to happiness.

Steven Covey’s Seventh Habit: Sharpen The Saw. In order to maintain balance and be prepared for living well, we must make the quantifiable effort to fulfill these four human requirements.

The four areas of Sharpening The Saw are remarkably clear and simple. We are to simply ensure that we leave no major area of our lives unexamined or neglected. For each of us, what we choose to pursue actively in the mental, physical, social and spiritual aspects of our lives is, like our art, entirely personal. The important thing is that we do them and that they be measurable. For some, these actions are to be performed weekly, while for others, like myself, they are daily requirements. I draw out a chart whereby I tick the boxes to each of those elements every day in my life. I don’t always succeed in filling in all four boxes everyday, but seeing that mounting accomplishment is not only rewarding but satisfying and motivational. Selective repetition is what leads to real change and there’s nothing like experiencing success to inspire further success. Sharpening the saw is preeminent Quadrant II activity; it forces us to actively examine and engage in the most meaningful areas of our lives and do so regularly. Only then, do we have hope of advancing and doing something new, perhaps even great.

“You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea, because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness.” ― Terence McKenna

In light of the new year (and new year’s resolutions), I believe it’s important to take stock and reflect on the past. Only then, can we have some basis to work from. Knowing where we currently stand in the management of our time, and in effect, our lives, is crucial to future action and the future of our growth as creative individuals.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates