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Sharpening the axe

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

This quotation is oft attributed to Abraham Lincoln although that's likely apocryphal according to Quote Investigator. To me the more interesting part of that article is the progression and variation:

If I had I should spend ___ sharpening And ___ chopping Ratio
5 minutes 3 minutes 2 minutes 60%
10 minutes 2 minutes 8 minutes 20%
6 hours 4 hours 2 hours 66%
8 hours 6 hours 2 hours 75%
9 hours 6 hours 3 hours 66%

Among quoters there seems to be general agreement that more than 60% of the the investment should be in building capability.

An early formulation has the life of the lumberjack in the balance. Five minutes to the end, the stakes are high. There's no room for error and a sharp tool may make all the difference.

However, by the time we get to Abe's leisurely six hours, he's clearly not in a rush. Six hours at the whetstone is enough to sharpen the whole toolshed. Instead, perhaps a reasonable 30 minutes of preparation, less than an hour of work on the tree, be done before lunch, and have the afternoon free.

The lesson shouldn't necessarily be to spend two thirds of your time preparing, but rather to not forget those first minutes to be prepared!

The real message, of course, is about investing in your tools. Time spent on good tools is an investment, for they can be a force multiplier, a source of leverage, and a sustainable advantage.