Stopping burnout by making life changes

Sharpen the saw.

It’s a story I first came across maybe 20 years ago reading Stephen Covey’s, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

A man walking through a forest came across a frustrated lumberjack.

The lumberjack was trying to cut down a tree and was sweating and swearing.

“What’s the problem?”  The man asked.

“My saw’s blunt and won’t cut the tree properly.”  The lumberjack responded.

“Why don’t you just sharpen it?”

“Because then I would have to stop sawing,” replied the lumberjack.

“But if you sharpened your saw, you could cut more efficiently and effectively than before.”

“But I don’t have time to stop!”

I read a similar story somewhere else but it was of a lumberjacks’ sawing contest. One lumberjack, an older man, stopped to sharpen his saw after every fourth cut while the other, a strong, young man, pushed on. At the end of the first hour, the older man was far behind in production and the younger man was smiling at the impressed crowd gathered round. By the end of the second hour the young man’s pace began slowing considerably while the old lumberjack stayed about the same.

At the end of the third hour, the production piles were the same. By noon the young man had to quit for the day, physically exhausted, now behind in production and able to do no more. The old lumberjack, however, was able to continue his pace throughout the full day, after taking a break for lunch, whistling through each sharpening session. At the end of the day, the old lumberjack had at least twice the output of the younger, stronger man.

The younger man drew a lot of attention at first. Everyone was pretty impressed with his skill, his speed and his strength while the older man attracted very little attention. He wasn’t very impressive. No one was wowed by the older man at all. In fact, some commented on how slow he was and that the younger man was a much better worker.

Who do you identify with in the story? Me? I am always sucked in by my desire to be like the younger man and get everything done fast and earn the accolades from others. Even though my pattern over my almost 53 years is like the young man’s. I eventually end up in a burned out heap.  I repeat the same mistakes over and over again. I’ve have had periods, even a year or two here and there, when I’ve been a disciplined saw sharpener. After almost losing my life to liver disease (largely the result of my obesity and decades of unhealthy living) I vowed never to return to my pre-transplant patterns. Yet, here I am, staring at some of the same habits again just 3 and a half years later.

The strangest thing is that I’ve got it good right now. No one is pushing me for more production. No one is pressing me with new goals, new projects and new programs. Most of us have external forces pushing us to produce more, faster and better. I’ve been in some of those situations but that is simply not my life right now. Right now, all the blame for my unsharpened saw sits squarely on my own shoulders. I know that’s the case for a lot of the self-employed and salaried population as well.

For the past eight days I’ve been staring at the saw that is me. Spurred on by a pretty good fight with my wife the week before my trip (yes, we have those too), I’ve been taking a hard look in the mirror.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like. James 1:22-24 (MSG)

What sharpens your saw? What refuels you?

My sharpening tools will look different from yours. The key is not the particular tools but more in finding what things keep each of us balanced and then making changes to make them a regular priority.

Most of us fail to sharpen the saw regularly. We escape for a vacation once a year or maybe get a long weekend every few months but then we pack them tight with yard work and activity. More problems come when we squeeze those times so full of other tasks and goals that we head back to work more exhausted than when we left. Like the old lumberjack, the discipline of long-term results and a relaxed whistle can only be found in stopping to sharpen regularly before our saw is rendered useless.

I think dull saws are usually to blame for burnout and depression. They make weaker families, more stress at work and less energy at home. They pull our focus from what is important and leave us wondering how we got where we are. Dull saws leave failed marriages, broken relationships and are to blame for so many illnesses. Dull saws leave us falling short of our life goals and cause collapse. We work harder but the yield is less.

The question is, will we stop and make changes before it is too late? Change is terrifying. But, is eventual collapse any less terrifying just because we refuse to admit that it is clearly coming?

What changes will you make? I’ve known some courageous people who have seen collapse coming and made major changes. I’ve seen toxic boyfriends dumped, social circles changed and new careers born in people willing to change their patterns. I’ve seen marriages rebuilt, families repaired and stitched back together by people willing to face reality and make life changes. I’ve known people who have beaten addiction by deciding to ask for help. I’ve witnessed people who have put their rage to rest and have seen people who have found peace. I’ve watched people make moves, downsize houses and change jobs.

I’ve seen others change nothing. They list of excuses for why change is impossible for them. They need the money, counseling is too expensive, it hurts to exercise, they married the wrong person, change is too embarrassing, etc… I’ve seen too many reach the young lumberjack’s noon, exhausted, broken and full of regret. I refuse to be in that camp again.

What sharpens you? What needs to change in life for you to finish strong with good fruit to show like our old lumberjack friend? I’m dull but, I do have the power to change. You do too.

In tomorrow’s blog I will share some of the changes I will make to keep from collapse and burnout. Maybe some of them will be ones that you can make too.

About Scott Linscott

Living life to the fullest, walking in the dust of my Rabbi, creating art through photography and written word, speaking words of hope wherever and whenever the opportunity arises.
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