How to gain precision and focus with just one word

There’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that goes like this:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a South African prison. It is said he spent that time deciding the one thing he would do when released. That one thing was: end apartheid. It only took him four years.

Both great men knew the power of precision.

A focused man’s abilities far outweigh the production of a busy one.


I cleaned my closet on Good Friday. The piles of clothes stacked waist-high around my living room. There was a lot to sort.

Looking at the mounds, I knew my donate pile *needed* to be larger than what I kept. So, I took a simplistic approach. In a three step process, I weeded through my entire wardrobe in a single afternoon.

First. I sorted clothes by their utility. Long-sleeve button ups, t-shirts, pants, socks, so on.

Second. I held up one piece at a time and asked: Does this fit?

Third. If it did, I asked: Do I love it?

Why force myself into something that’s uncomfortable or that I don’t care deeply about?

I like metaphors. About half way through clothes cleansing, it dawned on me: this method applies to life too. Why do something I don’t love if I don’t have to keep it around? Subjecting oneself to meaningless repetition of pointless task is, well, pointless.

Plenty of people say, “There’s not enough time in the day.” Sure. But we all have the same time in each day. Some people grow empires. Some barely make it to the bank and grocery store. Often, “There’s not enough time” turns out just to be an excuse not to leap. We’ve got to choose how we spend our time better. Or, at least, I do.

So I’m taking time to step back with each new inquiry. And also to reprocess things I’ve done for years or even months. Right now, nothing is a “yes” for me, unless I love it.

I’ll spend my time with what I love doing. Then I’ll backfill extra hours sharpening my axe.

Because no matter how long you give a man, he can’t bring down a tree with a butter knife.