Abraham Lincoln once said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This quote gave rise to the concept of “sharpening the saw,” which describes the necessity of investing in your whole self—mind, body and spirit—before attempting a task. But it was also about using time well.
In this article, you’ll discover the importance of optimizing your time to use your information to its best potential: working alone, in teams and in your business relationships. You’ll also learn the surprising power of curiosity, how it can give you unique and valuable perspectives that can’t be realized through conventional thinking, and you’ll learn how to boost it.
I’ve long been passionate about extreme sports, but my second love was racing cars (my first love was actually horseback riding, but it might well have been cars if I’d been allowed).
The fusion of engineering, split-second judgment and the will to win encapsulates much of what drives me both professionally and athletically. But if you love competitive driving, as I do, you quickly learn you’re nothing without the people around you. That’s just part of what makes the ways in which we talk with and listen to our team so crucial.
In the run-up to a race, knowledge, experience and planning against the clock move in a constant flow of words between team and driver. Everyone knows that there is not a second or a word to be wasted. The objective in communication between a driver and team is governed by an understanding that the team must establish a positive “signal-to-noise ratio” to use the engineering measurement. This requires that all parties listen, but only say that needs to be said, as critical decisions are discussed.
This takes discipline and judgment, to be sure, but it also takes honesty and courage. Because sometimes, the team needs to hear something that is tough to hear. In all competitive team environments, if you replace clarity and honesty with warm words you know will make you liked, you fail your colleagues.
On the track, I know that the courage of my teammates to purify their information, own their emotions and stick to the most faithful version of themselves gave us the edge. In business, it’s the same.
So how does the business development professional use the discipline of the race team when managing time and information?
1. Plan how you manage your information.
Time spent planning is seldom wasted. The old Portuguese proverb “Think of many things, do only one” is taped above my desk, reminding me to purify my thinking and planning constantly. When I’m planning any information project, I visualize its anticipated steps—an exercise that radically cuts down the time spent executing it.
2. Take time to prioritize.
All projects comprise strings of interrelated tasks, each one of which warrants careful evaluation and scrutiny. Time spent deciding which can be cut or simplified will be rewarded. Abraham Lincoln knew that hacking down the tree without thinking about it first would double the effort and halve the results.
3. Eliminate distraction.
Along with time and information, our attention is one of our most precious resources, yet we often need to work on it. Staying focused is a skill we all must master to get anything done. I recommend using a timer to keep on track with a task and switching off the phone.
4. Don’t multitask.
Multitasking is often championed as a valuable skill, but in reality, it stifles productivity. Concurrent multiple projects inhibit each other and create friction and confusion. Focus on one outcome at a time, giving it your full attention until it is completed. It is the most efficient way and delivers the best results.
Managing time and information as two facets of our work releases creativity, stimulates original thinking and allows us to be the people we were created to be. But one final skill in this space is worth our attention.
5. Cultivate curiosity.
Albert Einstein once said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Never lose a holy curiosity.” Elon Musk’s recent rules for productivity focus on meetings, but they are also about not being afraid to think originally and act confidently when the institutional rules are not working in practice.
This thinking is common in leaders who step outside convention to accomplish extraordinary things, but it applies to anyone who wants to optimize time and information. Einstein’s “holy curiosity” came from a habit of constant questioning and of not being satisfied with standard answers. It made his mind active; it made him observant and open to new ideas. We can have that, too.
If we want to develop curiosity, here are some other habits worth cultivating.
Keep an open mind. Be ready to learn, relearn and unlearn.
Don’t take things for granted. The way the world is set up is not God-given. Somebody else set it up that way. It’s possible they were wrong, and nobody has yet noticed. You could be the first.
Never stop asking questions. Asking questions can become an addictive habit, but it is one of the few I’d encourage if you want to cultivate curiosity.
Time and information seem abundant—but they are critical assets we must manage carefully.
In a world of seemingly unlimited information, communication is crucial. By speaking with clarity and economy—the low “signal-to-noise” ratio—we save everyone’s time. If we cultivate curiosity and challenge conventions by asking questions and listening actively, fresh thinking and radical solutions arise.
Steve Jobs had something helpful to say about our time and how we use it: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”