Sharpen Your Axe: The Value of Preparation

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

A great quote, isn’t it? It’s the opposite of what many people do. When they have a project to work on, many people just work on it directly with little or no preparation. To the contrary, smart people prepare things well in advance and that way they outperform those with little or no preparation. They accomplish the job in less time and with less stress. That’s what I call working smart.
Preparation is essential to work smart. At a glance, it may seem like a waste of time. Isn’t it better to use the time to get the job done? Isn’t it better to get to work directly? But preparation can make the difference between being productive and just being tired.
Here are three ways preparation can help you:

  1. Preparation helps you find if something is worth doing. Few things waste your time more than working on the wrong project. So it’s wise to check first if something is worth doing. Is it the best use of your time and resources? Is there other project that can give you better return for your investment? Spend time to find out whether or not the project is feasible. The time saved from not doing the wrong project far outweighs the time spent to research it.
  2. Preparation helps you find the most efficient way to do things. Once you decide that a project is worth doing, the next step is finding the most efficient way to do it. Those with no preparation will use the first method they can think of or the one they are familiar with. But chance is there are other methods out there that can do things better and faster. Do some research to find them. One good way is by watching how the best people in your field work. Find several models and observe the advantages and disadvantages of their methods. Pay special attention to methods that are radically different from what you know. Then combine the best methods to create something that suits your style and situation.
  3. Preparation makes you ready when opportunity comes. You shouldn’t prepare yourself only when you have a project ahead. Even when there is no project, you should keep building your skills and knowledge. Keep learning, keep growing, and open your eyes. That way when opportunity comes you will be ready to grab it. As Seneca said: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

There is a danger though: you could be over-prepared. Being over-prepared is dangerous because you may then take action way too late or never take action at all. Even worse, some people use preparation as an excuse not to take action. Don’t let this happen to you. Do only the preparation that significantly contributes to your project and your personal growth. Prepare well but don’t over-prepare.
Photo by erix!


  1. Preparation is very important. I just wrote an essay “Readiness and Right Timing” Sounds like we are talking the same issue in different ways.

  2. The majority of people either over-prepare or under-prepare. The latter is almost usually the case.
    But there is another ingredient without which even best prepared person will fail – the focus.
    Without focus you will quickly lose motivation to accomplish any task you start.
    Therefore it is important to develop the habit of concentrating on one task at a time, and not wasting your energy on the unimportant.

  3. Jade,
    That’s an interesting essay you wrote. Yes, we write about something similar in different ways.
    I agree with you. Focus is essential. Even the best preparation won’t be helpful if you get distracted and lose focus along the way. On the other hand, I believe good preparation can help you maintain focus.

  4. Donald, I guess gradual preparation can work. We can try to insert actions in-between preparations, rather than waiting until the end of preparation and get over-prepared.

  5. Donald
    I liked what you have to say about the importance of preparation. However, on reading the quote by Lincoln I see a greater emphasis on the idea that the more time you give yourself to work on a project the longer you’ll stretch out the project. I’ve found that you can always make work fill the amount of time you’ve alloted by doing ‘busy work’.
    Preparation is needed but I believe that if you are focused on doing things right and have a quick deadline you can do the same quality of work in half the time, if that is required.

  6. […] Sharpen Your Axe: The Value of Preparation […]

  7. When I am prepared I feel confident. When I am ill prepared I feel ill. There is a lot to be said about being prepared. Thanks for the thought!

  8. Thanks Donald. In fact, people are preparing but they do not know how to do it right. Many are hardworking but many are not smart so in the long run they get tired. Smarter people never get tired because they do not do the right things but they do things right. It’s an entirely different attitude. That’s why many hardworking man are not getting rich yet. My mentor in kamja has thought me a lot on how to deal with this matter. And I did! Today, I never do the hard way, but I usually do the extra-ordinary way.

  9. Like this article… organization and preparation are key.
    I’d add the word that I learned this year was focus and letting go of the non-essential.

  10. […] the other night when I discovered Donald’s blog Life Optimizer  where he was discussing the value of preparation. While he raised an excellent point that it is important do the preparation in order to be ready […]

  11. Hi Donald, Excellent post. Preparation is the process of readying yourself for your day’s activities. When we are prepared for something we feel at ease. Great point on being over-prepared; this is where the priceless quality of being flexible fits in. Life may throw us a curve but if we are able to adapt we’ll be OK.

  12. Robert,
    Gradual preparation is a good idea. It reminds me of a mantra in the open source world: “Release early, release often.”

    the more time you give yourself to work on a project the longer you’ll stretch out the project.

    It’s true. It’s called Parkinson law and it’s a fundamental principle for productivity. Over-preparation most likely happens because you give yourself too much time.
    Robert Kintigh,
    I feel the same myself 🙂

    Today, I never do the hard way, but I usually do the extra-ordinary way

    I like it 🙂 Working smart instead of working hard is something I should remind myself these days.
    Letting go of the non-essential is not easy to do, especially if you have lived with it for years. But it’s important to get the most out of your limited resources.
    I agree that being flexible is a way not to over-prepare. It’s also a way not to under-prepare. We should always adapt to the changing situation.

  13. Good post…I really enjoyed it. Bottom line is preparedness has a direct correlation to feeling in control and being empowered.

  14. GREAT QUOTE…and makes perfect sense!!

  15. wiwin widi astuti
    wiwin widi astuti

    Vergest mich ?
    I like ur article..
    Everything will run well if we’ve prepared it before..coz we have target of it.. But be ready in all condition in the future is more important I think..( think fast – do fast )
    Is it possible for person who have bad attitude in their daily life ( e.g lazy, jam karet , etc. ) to do a good preparation ?

  16. Hi Wiwin,
    Welcome! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think it’s unlikely – though it’s possible – that someone with bad attitude will do good preparation. Doing good preparation requires motivation and discipline, and both of them are part of good attitude.

  17. Lincoln never said that.

  18. I’d like to talk a little bit about the quote you lead off the article with.
    If he said this, I’m not claiming he did or didn’t but others have but that’s not the point. Hes NOT talking about preparing hes talking about procrastinating.
    Sharpen an axe for 4 hours? You would have no blade left. If the task takes 2 hours you think hes really saying you should take 4 in order to prepare? Why not go in unprepared double the time it’d take and do it in 4 hours total, therefore saving 2 hours?

  19. Another important piece of this great quote is to ignore/fire cynics like @sms here. They actively look for reasons to fail with no positive agenda.

  20. Is the quote about preparation (for this specific task) or about self improvement? Investing time in the important/not-urgent?
    (I’m thinking Covey’s 7th habbit – sharpen the saw)

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