How ‘Sharpening the Saw’ relates to sustainability

Reading Time: 10 minutes

‘To sharpen the saw®’ is one of Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®. There is a lot of good advice in the book, but as of recently this is the one I concentrate on the most. I’m not really sure how well my interpretation goes with the real meaning of the habit, but many situations in the past made me wish dearly that I had sharpened the saw.

  1. What does sharpen the saw® stand for?
  2. How does sharpening the saw relate to sustainability?
  3. More examples
  4. Skill development

1. What does sharpen the saw® stand for?

The 7th habit stands for increasing productivity. This is done by the constant effort to improve oneself and one’s skills. Stephen Covey talks about 4 different realms (physical, mental, spiritual and social). Personally, I like to also use the phrase for the actual maintenance of existing tools.

This boost my mental and physical energies (saving me from frustrations or wasting time & energy). And I believe it also boosts my environmental consciousness. By keeping things intact I can increase their duration, meaning I will use up less resources in the long run. By getting better informed, I can also make wiser (meaning more environmentally conscious) choices.

So by keeping your tools sharp you will likely be able to perform to the best of your abilties. Abilities themselves, can be sharpened by the constant effort to improve them, including staying up-to-date with new innovations and inventions or by learning new complementary skill sets and techniques to improve overall performance.

Example from my daily life

When working as a bicycle courier I am constantly putting stress on my bicycle and thus slowly wearing it down. Often when I come home, I am tired, so I put it away and tell myself ‘I will clean and oil my chain tomorrow’ or ‘I’ll readjust my brakes tomorrow’.

The next day, I wake up and I would remember none of that (and even if I did, I’d often delay it further). So slowly but surely the dirt in my chain grinds on it. My chain wears down faster and I need more energy to ride my bicycle as the thick paste of dirt&oil sitting on the chain links makes it go less and less smooth. Translating into the need to use more energy to make it move.

If I had sharpened the saw, I would have cleaned it every second day, or at least weekly. But for a long time I didn’t. Especially now in winter, with all the wet weather and (sometimes) snow, I noticed it is crucial to keep my bicycle clean and smooth running, so I find more motivation to get it done.

2. How does sharpening the saw relate to sustainability?

Besides increasing productivity, I find it also enhances my efforts to live more sustainable. ‘How’, you might ask – so let me try to explain it.

Back to the example of my bicycle chain

By keeping my chain clean I would wear it down less, meaning it would last me longer. Not only that, it would have also decreased the wear on my derailleurs (front and back), who were equally dirty and neglected. The whole set would probably have lasted me a lot longer, before it wore down to the state it is in now. Where it urgently needs to be replaced.

It would also have saved me a considerable amount of energy. The dirty chain is making the transfer of energy less effective thus my drive suffered from it. Needing more energy to keep up a good speed, I had to supplement the loss with food.

‘Ok, so you ate more’, you might say. But here too the acummlative effect, also called a ripple or butterfly effect, comes into play and shows how far our actions can reach. (Even if it sounds far fetched. I think by going through these considerations, it makes it easier to make the above mentioned conscious and informed choices.)

So here we go: This food, as we know, has a footprint too. And before I started my mission to eleminate added sugar and reduce chocolate out of my life, this energy source was often supplemented by chocolate.

So let’s take the example of chocolate and it’s environmental consequences:

  • Distance

    Most people who read this blog, will likely live very far away from cocoa bean trees. Thus the cocoa powder will have been shipped from far away. In a movie (Weit. Eine Reise um die Welt) that I watched recently, I learned that it takes a freight ship about 120-180 tonnes of fuel to run. Each day. A journey across the ocean often would take a couple weeks or more. 120-180t x 14days, that’s 1.680-2.520 tones of fuel.

    Of course, it is not just one item but thousands of goods that are shipped each time, so the overall C02 footprint becomes less per item transported. It is also a much better way of transportation than flying. But wouldn’t it be nice, to reduce the amount of freight ships needed, simply by buying more local products and produce?

  • Fair trade

    Many chocolates are not fair trade certified. Meaning the people working to harvest the cocoa beans were paid less than they should be paid. Or worse, kids might have been working to produce/harvest the cocoa, instead of going to school. All that, so that we can enjoy cheap chocolate.

  • Organic

    Comes at a higher price. If non-organic it probably means that pestizides were used and ended up in the soil – polluting the environment and its inhabitants.

  • Plastic garbage

    85% of chocolates seem to come with some sort of plastic (the other 15% use some other materials). All of wich will likely end up in a landfill or our oceans…. Rememeber plastic not biodegrade and will last us for at least the next 400 years.

  • Palm oil

    Many chocolates contain palm oil so there is a chance that you too are supporting the habitat loss Orang-Utans are suffering from if you buy such products.

So yes, eating less – and if, only organic and fairtrade – chocolate or eating locally produced snacks instead is definitely desirable and helps being more sustainable with resources. The same goes for other food, where it is always desirable to support organic producers (to demonstrate our consumer interests) and buy as locally as possible.

Reducing the need for snacks by conserving my energy from the beginning is probably the best way to start.

To sum it up

Reducing the wear and tear of bicycle parts will not only help with that but also result in a less frequent need to replace them. Saving material/resources at the same time: It’s a win-win!

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