Sharpening the Axe

Posted by Brad on June 20, 2016

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

– Abraham Lincoln

I ran across this quote in The Obstacle Is The Way a few months ago, but while going back through the book recently, it really hit me hard, in that way where the words just bounce around in your head for a while.

Then, in this 30 Days of Genius interview, Tim Ferriss talks about starting his (wildly successful) podcast by asking himself the question:

What would this look like if it were easy?

The intent of this question, put another way, would be: What can I do to make this easy for myself?

Ferriss goes on to talk about exactly what his podcast “would look like if it were easy”, and points to decisions like:

  1. sticking with a long-form format (normally 1 ½ hours or more), which would happily require very little editing, as compared to highly-produced short-form works
  2. using good recording tools, but not getting to/ fussy about them, which would, among other benefits, allow him to travel easily to where his interviewees are, and interview them comfortably, anywhere


So, what would this look like if it were easy? And not just in general, but for me specifically?

What axe should I invest my time in sharpening before getting to chopping down my trees?

Well, the move to my new blogging platform (Jekyll running on Heroku) was a big first step, letting me publish my work using my favorite formats, tools, and services (e.g. Markdown, Vim, Git, Ruby, Heroku), but once I got acquainted with Jekyll, I found a few rough edges:

  • you have to manually move files from one folder to another, prefixing a YYYY-MM-DD date to the beginning of the file as you do so, in order/to publish them
  • each post must begin with “front matter”, that’s mostly just a lot of annoying, boilerplate-type stuff

These things aren’t really that big of a deal, granted, but when I’m writing a blog post, I don’t want so much to be concerned with datestamps and file directories; I just want to get my ideas out, into a text file, then off to the internet. Things like filename formats are necessary implementation details for making this happen inside of Jekyll, sure, but I’d much prefer to think about these sorts of things once, understand what they’re for, automate my way around them, and then get back to work.

So I spent the afternoon working to make this simpler for myself.

My New Process

First, I created a Vim snippet for generating “front matter”, then set off on creating some scripts for creating new drafts, viewing them locally, and “publishing” them to the proper directory.

Now I can get into writing a draft and viewing it in Chrome with just a few commands:

$ cd these8bits-blog

$ ./draft sharpening the axe

# ... use front matter snippet in vim and write the post ...

$ ./draft
(1) _drafts/

$ ./draft 1

$ ls _posts

If you’re not familiar with the Linux shell, take my word for it: this is way more stream-lined. And I’m super happy with it.

A Word of Caution

“Hurray! Job well done, Brad; you made your future work easier on yourself. You deserve a break!”

… goes the voice in my head. But the whole point of “sharpening the axe” was to make the “tree cutting” easier, not just to sharpen the axe.

And so, the potential pitfall in all of this is that, after defining and stream-lining a process, it feels like an accomplishment. And, in a way, it is, except that the new-and-improved process exists now for me to use, not just for me to ponder and make ever more efficient.

In fact, I need to be particularly careful of this pitfall, because I love the act of pondering and making more efficient. I could friggin’ curl up and live there.

Which would be great, except we also have to get out there and “make our art”, as Neil Gaiman would say. And so, I choked down my sense of accomplishment, and informed myself that I would be publishing a post before I went to bed: in addition to improving my process, I would force myself to make use of it.

And I am here doing just that.

In Summary

I urge you:

Think critically about your process and how you can improve it. Seek to sharpen your axe, while asking yourself: What would this look like if it were easy?

But, once the axe is sharp, aim to get it back on your shoulder as quick as you can, and put it to work at what it was built to do.

Special Thanks

I found this post, Writing in Markdown With Vim, really helpful and insightful while setting up my snippets. Also, there was a booby trap in my .vimrc that I’d planted for myself long ago, was completely baffled as to why things weren’t working, and something in this post snapped the problem into focus for me. Incredibly grateful for that.

And I’m just generally grateful to all the awesome open-source software that has made this blog possible, as well as every other project I’ve ever worked on. Vim, Jekyll, Ruby, Git. The list could go on and on. I feel like it’s really easy (for me, at least) to take these and other projects for granted, but the truth is that I’m ever standing on the shoulders of giants in this world of technology, and I’m eternally grateful.