Avoiding the Frustrated Lumberjack Syndrome


Stephen Covey, author of THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE, uses a version of an old folktale to demonstrate the importance of renewal in Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw (R):

A man walking through the forest came across a frustrated lumberjack. The lumberjack sweated and cursed as he labored in vain to cut down a tree.

“What’s the problem?”  asked the man.

“My axe is blunt and won’t cut the tree properly,” the lumberjack replied.

“Why don’t you sharpen it?”

“Because then I would have to stop chopping. I’ve got to finish today!”

“If you sharpen your saw, you could cut more efficiently.”

“I don’t have time to stop!” the lumberjack retorted, more frustrated than ever. “Leave me alone.”

The story illustrates how ineffective our lives become when we don’t allow time for renewal and regeneration. Covey discusses renewal in four domains: Physical, Social/Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual. He proposes we keep each of them sharpened and in balance.

Let’s take a look at each domain and a few behaviors that sharpen it:

  1. Physical (Body) Live

To live a long life of productivity and health, we keep our physical selves sharp. We accomplish this through regular activity and exercise, healthy eating, and adequate rest. Treating ourselves to an occasional massage is an excellent idea.

2. Social Emotional (Heart) Love

God made us with the need to love and be loved. To sharpen this area, we develop meaningful relationships. We spend time with family and friends. Socializing also fosters good mental health because it reduces stress, curbs depression, and thwarts cognitive decline.

We also have a need to create. Incorporating creative activity into our lives, such as cooking, planting, writing, playing music, or painting fulfills social-emotional needs.

3. Mental (Mind) Learn

We sharpen our mind by learning. We read something not work-related. We try new hobbies and learn new skills. Other options include listening to Ted Talks and Podcasts, taking free online courses, and visiting museums.

4. Spiritual (Spirt) Leave a Legacy

Many eyes are on us. The more we nourish our spiritual selves, the greater our legacy will be. Prayer, Bible study, devotions are paths to renewal. Providing spiritual guidance for our children grows our legacy.

Being in God’s natural world restores me. Serving others is another good practice.

Keeping it Balanced

It’s best to consistently renew each area to lead a balanced life.

But we all have seasons when our lives teeter with unbalance because of unusually high demands on our time. Caring for a critically-ill family member, managing a big project, harvesting the crop, and taking on a second job to meet financial obligations are a few examples. When I was a school administrator, state testing was brutal for me because of the extra workload.

Hopefully, these seasons are short-lived, and we return to keeping our saw sharp on all circuits. But when we can’t, let’s resist soldiering on with a dull tool. Let’s take the time for renewal in at least one area. Let’s avoid becoming the frustrated lumberjack.

The good news is the four dimensions are interconnected, and renewal in one area carries over to others. When we feel good physically, our minds are sharper and we can better control our emotions. Hiking not only restores us spiritually, it’s also physical activity. Participating in weekly worship feeds us spiritually and also provides socialization. At the same time, we’re sharpening the mental domain by reading the Bible and pondering a message.

Inheriting Eternal Life

An expert in the law asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus confirmed the answer as written in Luke 10:27:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind

Luke 10:27 NIV

Did you notice each domain is mentioned? God wants all of us. To inherit eternal life, we love on all cylinders. Let’s give God our best way by keeping each facet sharpened.

When I look back over my day and find that I’ve done something that renews me physically, social-emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, I’m content. That’s a successful day for me.

God wants all of us. To inherit eternal life, we love on all cylinders. Click To Tweet

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  1. With moving into a new home I’m now out of balance. My time for the past few months has been spent moving across country, searching for a new home, finding a house, cleaning, unpacking, and organizing. And there’s still more to do. Through all of that, I’ve made time for the Lord, my family, and my health, but my mind could use some help! Time to learn new things and once again create. Thank you for your post, Candyce.

    1. Events such as new home shopping and moving tend to take over our life for a while. Wisdom tells us not to stay out of balance too long.

  2. I love walking my dog around our neighborhood. The sky, trees, flowers, grass are so calming. There is the occasional whistle of a train. My mind gets to recalibrate. Great post!

    1. Doesn’t that outdoor activity – with your companion – wonderfully refresh all four of those domains? And it’s something most of us can do without a huge investment of time.

  3. Like you, Candyce, I get renewal from being in God’s marvelous creation. Walking in the woods or getting my hands dirty pulling weeds is good therapy. And, as you point out, these aspects of wellness and renewal are all inter-related. The lumberjack story is a good example of how we sometimes have tunnel vision and get lost in the tunnel instead of going toward the Light. Thanks for your inspiring message.

    1. We’re on the same wavelength when it comes to getting outdoors. I endorse John Muir’s “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

      Since God is the author of Nature, I substitute His name in place of that word

  4. Thanks for sharing! I love the illustration at the beginning. I’ve been guilty of trying to “get it finished,” when I need to stop and “sharpen my axe.”

  5. I appreciated your insights and practical suggestions for these areas in which we need sharpening. This one particularly resonated with me–“God made us with the need to love and be loved. To sharpen this area, we develop meaningful relationships. We spend time with family and friends.” Thank you , Candyce for a helpful post!

  6. What a great lesson Ms. Candyce, and Mr. Covey. We sometimes get so focused on completing whatever task we think we must finish that we throw productivity right out the window. I know I’ve been “guilty as charged” with that one more times than I can remember. “Oh, I’ve only been here working for three days boss. As long as I’ve got a shower and more coffee, I’ll get this proposal out the door on-time. No, it doesn’t bother me that you let it sit on your desk for three weeks before giving it to me a week before it’s due.” I appreciate the reminder that sometimes circumstances can change our priorities, but keeping “the main thing, the main thing” helps us to keep everything else in perspective. Great lesson ma’am.

    1. Yes! Often whatever happens to throw us out off-balance is out of our control. But whether the fault is ours or belongs to someone else’s, keeping the “main thing the main thing” is what’s important.

  7. We do need to take care of every aspect of our lives. Too often we sacrifice some of these areas to favor others but all we do is make our body or mind suffer. God gives us His Word to cover all the details as He is our creator and knows exactly what we need.

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