Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend four hours sharpening the axe.” The idea is that a dull axe will multiply the amount of energy and action required to chop down a tree. A sharp axe will make quick and effective work of the task.
When I lived in Oregon, I had a woodstove to warm the house. In my shed, I had two axes to chop wood, one dull and the other sharp. Sometimes I would thoughtlessly grab the closest handle without paying much attention. When I swung the axe, I would feel the shock in my arms as the head bounced off the wood instead of sinking in deep. I had grabbed the dull axe.
Too often, we grab the tools closest to us without putting much thought into their condition. We use resources and ideas that are closest, familiar, and what we think we need. Sometimes we do this because we are too busy or too lazy to put much thought into researching what is appropriate, current, or the most accurate for our task.
We have all wasted time hacking away at an idea or project without the proper tools and resources. Without the right background, history, and knowledge, the only things we have to show for the time and energy spent are an exhausted mind and sore body. Take the time to research, read, and reflect and then approach the task with the right tools and knowledge. When the axe is sharp, it cuts quickly.
Parkinson’s law essentially states that work will expand to fill the time available for its completion.1 It says that people tend to take all the time allotted (and occasionally more) to accomplish a task. This situation hints at things like procrastination and other avoidance methods to put off unpleasant or overwhelming tasks. Squandering the time allotted could result in an unfinished task.
The ratio of making preparations for the action compared to the action should be intentional. When we have a plan, we are nearly always more successful. As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Grabbing the right axe, sharpening the axe thoroughly, and then taking action within the allotted time will lead to greater results.
The coronavirus pandemic gave us several opportunities to sharpen axes and learn new swinging methods for chopping down trees. We have learned how to communicate, show empathy, deepen relationships, grow friendships, and guide others on a spiritual journey. We have developed new skills with resources such as Zoom, Ecamm Live, Facebook Live, and Facebook’s Group Unit feature to carry on discipleship and encourage our members' spiritual development. We have sharpened our axes for the sake of the gospel.
Some saw this time with the virus as an opportunity and immediately got to work. Others took the unspecified time as a sort of vacation and later realized they would have spent their time better had they known what they know now. Yet others still are realizing that something was not working. They made a course correction and are making a second attempt with the right equipment for the task at hand. Sadly, still others are hacking away at the tree with a dull axe, wondering why nothing is changing.
We have been called to “ ‘go [get an axe] therefore and make disciples [sharpen] of all nations, baptizing [cut down a tree]’ ” (Matt. 28:19, ESV). We must approach this task to the best of our abilities, with the right tools and preparation, and be the best stewards of the time God has given us. At some point, He will say that time is up. Will we have been found to have embraced our opportunities—or squandered them?
- C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1968).