Staying Sharp: Regular Self-Care for a High Performance Life

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The story of the woodsmen goes something like this: 

Once upon a time, two woodsmen made a wager as to who could chop down 100 trees the fastest. They both set to work, chopping as quickly as they could with their axes. Halfway through, one woodsman sat down in the shade for a rest while he sharpened his ax. When the other woodsman heard the crack of his opponent’s ax cease, he laughed, delighted that his competitor had stopped for a break, and he plowed on ahead with his chopping, taking the lead. After a time the woodsman who had stopped to sharpen his ax got back up and began chopping again. With his ax razor sharp, he soon caught up to the other woodsman, who was straining and sweating and panting, working harder than ever to cut wood with his dull ax at an ever slowing pace. The woodsman with the sharper ax easily bested his opponent, and with less effort.   

Are you making time in your daily life to sharpen your ax? 

In our society, many people come to equate their worth with their productivity. A human life is worth much more than what it can produce, but even if we use that metric of success, productivity declines as people become exhausted and overworked. We lose our motivation, our creativity dwindles, our work becomes sloppy. Every little task begins to feel like climbing Mount Everest, and innovation grinds to a halt. Rest and healthful habits, such as sleep, nutrition, sunshine and exercise are important. But just as important are the activities that keep us sharp.  

“Sharpening the ax” activities are those activities that don’t just provide us with rest, but also replenish us, that keep us mentally and emotionally healthy and focused on the peace, joy, beauty, and positivity within our lives. That state of mind can look different for everyone, and it gets produced in different ways. An extrovert may feel enlivened and renewed after a night out having fun with friends, while an introvert might prefer reading in a bathtub by candlelight. Some people need regular doses of adrenaline for their wellness, such as roller coasters or extreme sports. Others need exactly the opposite, such as meditation or tai chi. Some might crave a sense of novelty or adventure, such as regular travel excursions, learning new skills or trying new things. And still others might find renewal through stretching their creative wings by making music, painting, writing, or crafting.     

Often, people encounter resistance when contemplating putting their self-care first and taking it seriously; sometimes they view it as selfish and self-centered. Taking time for oneself for sharpening the ax activities can be difficult for people who spend much of their time care-taking or supporting others or running their businesses. But look at it this way: before a commercial flight, we’re always told that in the event of an emergency, we must put on our own oxygen mask first before attending to others. Why? Because we’re of no use to our family or friends if we’re passed out, slumped over in the seat. It’s true that putting your own needs first will take a certain amount of time away from caretaking others, whether you’re caretaking people or your company; however, it will also allow you to show up as the most energetic, stable, and effective *whatever it is* you need to be. For example, getting in that yoga session first thing in the morning will likely have you showing up later as a calm and centered stay-at-home mom, whereas missing it might have you snapping at the kids by noon. If you’re reluctant to do it for yourself, then do it for the sake of others!

Make a list of the things that renew your stamina and passion for life, and make time for them in your daily life through scheduling them. If time spent in nature rejuvenates you, scheduling weekend hikes or camping trips regularly will help with burnout. Maybe sex and closeness with your partner/s is a thing that sustains you; don’t forget to set aside time for romance and connection. Or if stimulating intellectual conversation is what lights you up, make sure you’re consistently talking to the friends who provide that. 

A good sharpening the ax list should have things that you can do both by yourself and with others, as well as things that take some planning (like travel) and things that take no planning (like bubble baths). Having a ready arsenal of rejuvenating activities available to you at any time is crucial for keeping you at the top of your game. Don’t wait to sharpen your ax until the blade has been pounded down to a mallet! Being the most effective version of yourself means treating yourself with at least as much care as you would the most important tool of your trade!