Are You Sharpening Your Saw?

July 29, 2017
Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified

Dr. Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. You can visit his websites at and

Are you doing what you should be doing in order to stay mentally fresh? Here’s why you should — and what can happen if you don’t.

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” He also said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

Smart guy, this Aristotle. But, how do we put his thoughts into action to improve our own lives?

  • When we feel totally overwhelmed, swamped and overworked, we should take a few minutes to think, get organized and prioritize. Yet we rarely do it.
  • When we are overweight, we should eat fewer calories, buy only healthy food and exercise more. Yet statistics show that we as a nation keep gaining weight.
  • When we complain that we can’t get everything done, we should learn to let go, trust others and delegate more. Yet we continue to try to take on the world on our own.
  • When we go to the beach, we know we should apply sunscreen and avoid the midday sun, yet many of us don’t because we want to look tanned when we go back home‏. Otherwise, friends and colleagues might think that we did not have a good vacation when they see we are just as pale as they are.

Stephen Covey, author of the life-altering “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” tells a classic story that brilliantly illustrates this point in the chapter entitled “Sharpen the saw” (which is the seventh habit). Here’s the story — paraphrased.

Someone walking in the woods met a guy feverishly cutting down a tree. The observer asked: “What are you doing?”

“Can’t you see?” answered the sweaty tree-cutter. “I’m sawing this tree down. It is really hard work.”

The observer asked: “Why don’t you take a break to rest and sharpen your saw?”

“I don’t have time to sharpen my saw,” insisted the man. “I’m too busy cutting this tree down!”

I suspect many of us are guilty of not taking the time to “sharpen the saw” in our personal or professional life.

Bloomberg Businessweek notes that that more than half of Americans never take all their (paid) vacation days. More than half! I suppose they believe they are indispensable at work. Does this apply to your employees, your colleagues … or you? The fact is (no matter how painful it is to accept) we’re not nearly as indispensable as we think.

This reminds me of a French expression that says approximately: “Cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable.” Or, as I heard recently: “It doesn’t help to be the richest guy in the graveyard.”

The fact that well over 400 million (paid!) vacation days are left on the table each year may explain why job dissatisfaction, depression, burnout, decreased productivity, failed relationships, stomach ulcers and heart disease are so common in the United States.

If only we would take more time to “sharpen the saw.” Stephen Covey explains: “Sharpening the saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have: you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life:

  • Physical: Beneficial eating, exercising and resting
  • Social/emotional: Making social and meaningful connections with others
  • Mental: Learning, reading, writing and teaching
  • Spiritual: Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer or service.”

Not sharpening the saw can lead to taking shortcuts, making mistakes or having a short fuse. Ultimately, it can lead to poor health, ruffled feathers or burnout. I suspect these are some of the reasons why some of our colleagues (doctors and technicians) lose the “sacred fire.”

Deep down inside, we all know what to do: eat less, exercise more, plan, ponder, reflect, read, study, relax, slow down. We know we should see our physician(s), dentist and optician yearly. We know we should prepare for our retirement and protect our skin. We know we should work less (or smarter) and spend more time with family and friends.

One way to reach success is by being willing to do things that most people aren’t willing to do. Yet we tend to avoid the most the things we should be doing the most. Man is pretty much the only creature capable of self-sabotage.

As they say, awareness is the first step.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his websites at and