Book Notes: Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw (from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey)

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (1989)

3 Main Ideas

  • To “sharpen the saw” is to have a balanced program for self-renewal in the four main dimensions of our nature – physical, spiritual, mental/intellectual, and social/emotional – in order to maintain and improve our personal levels of production capacity.
  • Renewal is the principle, and the process, that empowers us to move on an upward spiral of growth and change, of continuous improvement.
  • We need to invest in ourselves. A healthy and balanced life that maintains and improves our personal production capacity is centered around four dimensions:
    • physical
    • mental/intellectual
    • spiritual
    • emotional/social

5 Key Takeaways

  • Sharpening the saw is a Quadrant II activity. It is important, but not urgent, so it won’t just happen by itself. You need to be proactive and make it a priority to make it happen. The return on time and energy spent on sharpening the saw is exponential.
  • We need to invest in ourselves, and engage in a program of self-renewal across the four main dimensions of our nature: physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional/social.
  • We must be proactive about our continuing education after we leave the external discipline of school. Exercise the mind like you do the body: read, write, learn new skills, and organize/plan ahead.
  • The Daily Private Victory – a minimum of one hour a day in renewal of the physical, spiritual, and mental dimensions – is the key to the development of the 7 Habits. It is also the foundation of the daily public victories of effective interdependence.
  • Rule your technology. Don’t let your technology rule you. To find time for the important Quadrant II saw-sharpening activities, you must spend less time on things that are not important and not urgent. A lot of television watching, phone usage, web browsing, and social media usage falls within this category. Lets not allow our screens and technology to consume us.

Top Quotes

  • This is the single most powerful investment we can ever make in life—investment in ourselves, in the only instrument we have with which to deal with life and to contribute. We are the instruments of our own performance, and to be effective, we need to recognize the importance of taking time regularly to sharpen the saw in all four ways. (377)
  • Education—continuing education, continually honing and expanding the mind—is vital mental renewal. Sometimes that involves the external discipline of the classroom or systematized study programs; more often it does not. Proactive people can figure out many, many ways to educate themselves. (385)
  • As you become involved in continuing education, you increase your knowledge base and you increase your options. Your economic security does not lie in your job; it lies in your own power to produce—to think, to learn, to create, to adapt. That’s true financial independence. It’s not having wealth; it’s having the power to produce wealth. It’s intrinsic. (395)


The last habit, Habit 7, Sharpen the Saw, is the habit of self-renewal. It is the habit of ensuring that your personal production capacity (PC) is continually refreshed and renewed by paying attention to your physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional health.

Covey uses the story of a man cutting down a tree with a blunt saw. It’s been several hours, and the task would go faster if he took a break to sharpen the saw. But he refuses to take a break; saying that he is too busy sawing the tree to sharpen the saw.

Habit 7 is the practice of ensuring that your mind, body, heart and soul are regularly refreshed and renewed so that we can continue to achieve our values and goals. It is taking intentional and proactive time to do the things that are important, but not urgent; those Quadrant II activities that help to maintain and improve the mind, body, and soul. It is taking the time to exercise, eat healthy, to read a book, spend quality time with family and friends, to meditate, to go for a hike, or take a vacation.

Because sharpening the saw is a Quadrant II activity, it won’t happen unless you make it a priority. These things usually come with no deadlines; there is no pull activity that reminds you to do them. You might think that you do not have time to take care of yourself. But, the truth is that you don’t have time NOT to take care of yourself.

You must proactively take the time and set the intention to perform these activities. If you neglect these important, but not urgent activities, you will likely end up with health issues, out of shape, tired, depressed, unfulfilled, and with poor relationships.

Make it a priority in your life. Schedule time to sharpen the saw. If you don’t have an hour, spend 10 minutes. Start small, and work your way up. You might need to examine your habits and routines, and see where your time is being wasted, and cut it out. Maybe you’re spending too much time scrolling Instagram or Twitter, or watching television. See which parts of your schedule can be eliminated or reduced so that you can find the time you need to sharpen your saw.

Even taking 30 minutes a day to go for a walk, read a book, write in your journal, pray or meditate will go a long way towards helping you to accomplish the rest of the goals you’ve set for yourself that day. After a morning walk, for instance, you will be clear-headed and refreshed, and more likely to get things done in the day ahead.

Habit 7 states that we must regularly renew and invest in ourselves across the four main dimensions – physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional/social. And, all these dimensions are interconnected; each has a positive impact on the other, and can synergistically allow you to accomplish more things in less time.

Being in good physical shape has a positive impact on your mental health. Good mental health helps us to build good social and emotional relationships. Good social relationships motivate us to contribute and be of service to others. And so on. Sharpening the saw across the four dimensions becomes a virtuous cycle of synergy.

We must engage in a program of constant renewal across these dimensions, so that we can more effectively attend to our self-declared values, desires, and goals.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal

  • Habit 7 is personal PC. It’s preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have—you. It’s renewing the four dimensions of your nature—physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional. (376)
  • Philosopher Herb Shepherd describes the healthy balanced life around four values:
    • perspective (spiritual),
    • autonomy (mental/intellectual),
    • connectedness (emotional/social),
    • tone (physical). (376)
  • “Sharpen the saw” basically means expressing all four motivations. It means exercising all four dimensions of our nature, regularly and consistently in wise and balanced ways. (376)
  • To neglect any one area negatively impacts the rest.
  • You must be proactive in order to make the time to “sharpen the saw”. It’s a Quadrant II activity.

The Physical Dimension

  • The physical dimension involves caring effectively for our physical body—eating the right kinds of foods, getting sufficient rest and relaxation, and exercising on a regular basis.(377)
  • Exercise is a Quadrant II activity: important, but not urgent
    • Most of us don’t exercise consistently because it isn’t urgent. Eventually, we develop health problems (Quadrant I emergency) that we perhaps might have avoided if we hadn’t neglected our health.
  • 3-6 hours a week – or a minimum of 30 minutes a day, every other day – will bring huge benefits in terms of the impact on the other 162–165 hours of the week.
  • A good exercise program:
    • is one you can do in your own home
    • builds your body in 3 areas:
      1. endurance
      2. flexibility
      3. strength.
  • Endurance
    • comes from aerobic exercise, from cardiovascular efficiency—the ability of your heart to pump blood through your body.
    • considered minimally fit if you can increase your heart rate (HR) to at least 100 beats per minute (BPM) and keep it at that level for 30 minutes.
    • Ideally you should try to raise your heart rate to at least 60 percent of your maximum pulse rate, the top speed your heart can beat and still pump blood through your body.
    • Maximum heart rate is generally accepted to be 220 minus your age
      1. e.g. If you are 40, aim for an exercise heart rate of 108 (220 – 40 = 180 × 0.6 = 108).
    • Training effect: generally between 72% & 87% of your personal maximum rate.
  • Flexibility
    • comes through stretching.
    • Most experts recommend warming up before and cooling down/stretching after aerobic exercise.
    • Before, it helps loosen and warm the muscles to prepare for more vigorous exercise.
    • After, it helps to dissipate the lactic acid so that you don’t feel sore and stiff.
  • Strength
    • comes from muscle resistance exercises – like simple calisthenics, push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups, and from working with weights.
  • In addition, exercising helps you to develop your Habit 1 skill of creativity
    • You’re making a conscious choice to act based on the value of physical well-being
    • You’re not reacting to all the forces that prevent you from exercising
    • Your sense of integrity, self-esteem and self-confidence improve

The Spiritual Dimension

  • The spiritual dimension provides leadership to your life.
  • The spiritual dimension is your core, your center, your commitment to your value system. It’s a very private area of life and a supremely important one. It draws upon the sources that inspire and uplift you and tie you to the timeless truths of all humanity. And people do it very, very differently. (381)
  • Types of Spiritual Practices:
    • Meditation
    • Prayer
    • Immersion in great literature, art, or music
    • Spending time in nature
  • When we take time to draw on the leadership center of our lives, what life is ultimately all about, it spreads like an umbrella over everything else. It renews us, it refreshes us, particularly if we recommit to it. (383)
  • Have a personal mission statement:
    • If we have a deep understanding of our center and our purpose, we can review and recommit to it frequently.
    • In our daily spiritual renewal, we can visualize and “live out” the events of the day in harmony with those values. (383)

The Mental Dimension

  • We must be proactive about our continuing education after the end of the external discipline of school. Many of us stop learning after the end of formal education; we let our minds atrophy. We don’t do any more serious reading, we don’t explore new subjects in any real depth outside our action fields, we don’t think analytically, we don’t write anything serious. We spend our time watching TV and on social media.
  • It’s OK to watch television, but you should be selective about what you watch, and “select the informing, inspiring, and entertaining programs that best serve and express your purpose and values”. (384)
  • Engage in Quadrant II renewing activities. Exercise the mind like you do the body:
    • Read Good Books:
      • Start with a goal of a book a month, then a book every two weeks, then a book a week.
      • Read quality literature that helps to expand our paradigms and sharpen our mental saw, eg. autobiographics, non-fiction, classics, etc
    • Write:
      • Keep a journal of your thoughts, experiences, insights, learnings
      • Promotes mental clarity, exactness, and context
      • Writing good letters—communicating on the deeper level of thoughts, feelings, and ideas rather than on the shallow, superficial level of events—also affects our ability to think clearly, to reason accurately, and to be understood effectively. (385)
    • Organize & Plan
      • It’s beginning with the end in mind and being able mentally to organize to accomplish that end. (Habit 2)
      • It’s exercising the visualizing, imagining power of your mind to see the end from the beginning and to see the entire journey, at least in principles, if not in steps. (Habit 2 & 3) (386)
  • It is extremely valuable to train the mind to stand apart and examine its own program. That, to me, is the definition of a liberal education—the ability to examine the programs of life against larger questions and purposes and other paradigms. Training, without such education, narrows and closes the mind so that the assumptions underlying the training are never examined. That’s why it is so valuable to read broadly and to expose yourself to great minds. (385)

Daily Private Victories

  • Involve sharpening the saw in the first 3 dimensions: physical, spiritual, and mental
    • Spend one hour every day doing it – 1 hour a day for the rest of your life.
  • Benefits of Practicing Daily Private Victories
    • It will affect every decision, every relationship.
    • It will greatly improve the quality, the effectiveness, of every other hour of the day, including the depth and restfulness of your sleep.
    • It will build the long-term physical, spiritual, and mental strength to enable you to handle difficult challenges in life.
  • [The Daily Private Victory] is also the foundation for the Daily Public Victory.
    • the source of intrinsic security you need to sharpen the saw in the social/emotional dimension.
    • gives you the personal strength to focus on your Circle of Influence in interdependent situations – to look at others through the Abundance Mentality paradigm, to genuinely value their differences and to be happy for their success. (395)

The Social/Emotional Dimension

  • The social and the emotional dimensions of our lives are tied together because our emotional life is primarily, but not exclusively, developed out of and manifested in our relationships with others. (387)
  • If our personal security comes from sources within ourselves, then we have the strength to practice the habits of Public Victory. If we are emotionally insecure, even though we may be intellectually very advanced, practicing Habits 4, 5, and 6 with people who think differently on jugular issues of life can be terribly threatening. (388)

Three Sources of Security


  • [Intrinsic security] comes from within. It comes from accurate paradigms and correct principles deep in our own mind and heart. It comes from inside-out congruence, from living a life of integrity in which our daily habits reflect our deepest values. (388)
  • a life of integrity is the most fundamental source of personal worth.
    • Peace of mind develops when your life is in harmony with true principles and values


  • Intrinsic security that comes as a result of effective interdependent living.
  • security in knowing that Win/Win solutions do exist, that life is not always “either/or,” that there are almost always mutually beneficial third alternatives. (Habit 4)
  • There is security in knowing that you can disagree with others, but value their differences; that you can really, deeply understand another human being. (Habit 5)
  • There is security that comes when you authentically, creatively, and cooperatively interact with other people and really experience these interdependent habits.(Habit 6)


  • intrinsic security that comes from service, from helping other people in a meaningful way. From having a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives that transcends our own lives (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning]
    • Work when you see yourself in a contributive and creative mode, really making a difference.
    • Anonymous service/Volunteering – the concern is improving the lives of other people. Influence, not recognition, becomes the motive. (389)
  • The late Dr. Hans Selye, in his monumental research on stress, basically says that a long, healthy, and happy life is the result of making contributions, of having meaningful projects that are personally exciting and contribute to and bless the lives of others. (389)

Scripting Others

  • We can choose to assume the best of others and good intent, and treat them as such (with imagination, as opposed to memory)
  • In response, they are likely to rise to the level of these high expectations
  • The more we can see people in terms of their unseen potential, the more we can use our imagination rather than our memory, with our spouse, our children, our coworkers, or employees. (392)

Synergy in Renewal

  • Balanced renewal is optimally synergetic:
    • Everything is connected. Sharpening the saw in one dimension has a positive impact on another dimension. Your physical health affects your mental health; your spiritual strength affects your social/emotional strength.
  • Renewal in any (of the four) dimension (s) increases your ability to live at least one of the 7 Habits
    • Although the habits are sequential, improvement in one habit synergistically increases your ability to live the rest.
  • The more you improve in any of the habits that lead to independence (Habits 1, 2, and 3), the more effective you will be in interdependent situations (Habits 4, 5, and 6). And renewal (Habit 7) is the process of renewing all the habits. (394)

The Upward Spiral

  • Renewal is the principle – and the process – that empowers us to move on an upward spiral of growth and change, of continuous improvement. (396)
  • If we do not align ourselves with correct principles, we will reap what we sow; our inputs will produce our outputs. We will lose our self-awareness, and lead basic, reactive, unfulfilled lives.
  • Nature abhors a vacuum:
    • Once we are self-aware, we must choose purposes and principles to live by; otherwise the vacuum will be filled, and we will lose our self-awareness and become like groveling animals who live primarily for survival and propagation. (397)

How to Apply Habit 7

  • Physical
    • Make a list of activities that would help you keep in good physical shape, that would fit your lifestyle, and that you could enjoy over time.
    • Schedule downtime, clear your schedule, and go on vacation. Rest, relax and clear your mind so you can come back refreshed and restored.
  • Mental
    • Get into the habit of reading good literature.
    • Get into the habit of keeping a journal or writing frequently
    • Take an online course
    • Watch an educational documentary
    • Get into the habit of organizing, anticipating, and planning ahead for things.
  • Spiritual
    • Pray
    • Go hiking, spend time in nature
    • Read inspirational memoirs and biographies
    • Attend a religious service
    • Study philosophy or scripture
  • Emotional/Social
    • Regularly touch base with friends and family
    • Keep a journal
    • Take a trip with your friends
    • Take your spouse out to dinner
    • See a therapist
    • Volunteer
  • Commit to write down specific “sharpen the saw” activities in all four dimensions every week, to do them, and to evaluate your performance and results.

Recommended Reading

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl



Have you read this book? What did you think? Share your thoughts and ideas with me!

If you found this summary helpful, just click here  to share it!