September 6, 2023
“Two woodcutters – Ben and Pat – were competing to cut down the most trees. Both started chopping, but after an hour, Pat stopped. Ben was puzzled but carried on chopping.
Five minutes later, he could again hear the swing of Pat’s axe. Another hour went by, and again Pat stopped for a few minutes. Confident he would win, Ben kept chopping away, pausing now and again to wipe the sweat from his brow.
Pat continued to take regular breaks while Ben became exhausted.
As the day drew to a close, Ben’s excitement was palpable, until they made their final tally. It was Pat who had managed to topple more trees.
“How is this possible!?” Ben inquired, perplexed. “I never once stopped chopping, while you seemed to take multiple breaks!”
Pat smiled as he divulged the secret behind his triumph, “Ah, my friend, during those brief intervals, I took the time to sharpen my axe.”
When it comes to health many of us fail to sharpen our axe. We prioritise the urgent over the important.
There are compelling evolutionary reasons for this phenomenon. What was urgent for our ancestors was often life-threatening, such as a sudden lack of food or water or an imminent attack. Our ancestors engaged in a game of survival, and as a result, our brains had evolved to ensure we could respond rapidly to changes in our environment.
Today, our brains still work in the same way, but our environment has undergone significant change. There are fewer physical threats, but we now face an abundance of urgent distraction. Yet, our brain chemistry reacts in a similar manner. Our ancestors responded to urgent threats to secure their long-term survival; we respond to ‘urgent’ phone and email notifications, trivial news, and superficial interactions on social media.
These distractions trigger the release of neuro-chemicals such as adrenaline and dopamine – a ‘feel-good’ brain chemical – pushing us towards more distraction and a restless mind. This preoccupation with distraction harms our long-term physical and mental well-being. Any parent who has tried to coax a teenager from their phone can relate.
Why does it matter?
Our most important priorities, like health, relationships, and financial security, demand attention and nurturing. They represent the axe that needs sharpening. In relation to health, chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and sarcopenia (age related muscle loss) can be largely prevented when we prioritise our health.
Imagine asking your future self what they’d want you to be doing now. Would they advise you to continue scrolling, watching, procrastinating, and repeating lazy habits? Or would they urge you to read widely, spend more time with loved ones, pursue your hobbies, and take steps towards long-term health and well-being?
I suspect they’d encourage us to dedicate more time to the important things.
So how can we change?
The first step is to act purposefully and protect your time. While young, we possess abundant time, but as we age, we become time-poor. Being mindful of how we use our time becomes crucial.
Prioritising delayed gratification – placing importance over urgency – is a determining factor for long-term physical and mental health, successful relationships, and financial stability. One way to help is to improve your time management skills. This can be as simple as using a diary to block time for exercise (or rehab), scheduling regular catch-ups with friends, or protecting time to read without distraction.
The second step is recognising that ‘urgent’ tasks like emails will never cease. Embrace the idea of never truly finishing your to-do list or clearing your inbox. Instead, close the browser, put away your phone and spend more time on the important things.