I spent 2 months working with a career coach and realised the most important kind of work can seem like a waste of time

Relaxing by water
As the saying goes, I was too busy chopping wood to sharpen my axe. Flickr / Audrey

I recently spent two months working with a career coach, Rebecca Fraser-Thill of the Pivot coaching team. The experience was a lot tougher than I’d anticipated.

It wasn’t because the assignments Fraser-Thill gave me — think brainstorming story ideas and keeping a running document with feedback from my editor — were so challenging. They weren’t.

Instead, I ran into trouble when I tried to make room for those assignments in my daily schedule. That’s largely because the “action work,” as Fraser-Thill called it, seemed less pressing than my routine responsibilities, like submitting articles and prepping for meetings.

And while I could see the immediate, tangible result of writing — a published article — the benefits of jotting down my professional strengths were more nebulous.

So I’d end up leaving the action work until the very end of the day — or more often, until the afternoon before my next coaching phone call. On Fraser-Thill’s recommendation, I even set a daily calendar reminder to work on my career-coaching assignments, but for the most part, I ignored it.

When Fraser-Thill suggested I register for a writing workshop, I did some preliminary research before deciding I wouldn’t have time.

When I think back on my coaching experience, I think of the phrase — the origin of which appears uncertain — “too busy chopping wood to sharpen the axe.” In other words, I was so caught up in my routine responsibilities (chopping) that I didn’t realise I needed to work on my journalism skills more generally (sharpening the axe).

Of course, honing my journalism skills would make my routine responsibilities a whole lot easier — and improve the quality of my work. The idea is easy to understand, but harder to apply in the context of your own job.

Maybe if I’d been paying the full amount for Fraser-Thill’s services (Pivot comped my registration for about $US1,000 worth of sessions), I would have felt differently. But honestly, I’m not so sure. I knew I couldn’t be fired for not completing the action work, so on some level it seemed “optional,” and not worth the effort.

Now that I’m no longer working with Fraser-Thill, it’s even harder to make time for things like big-picture thinking, updating the feedback document, and reading the work of writers in different fields. But I do have an updated mindset about what’s worth my time and energy.

Fraser-Thill suggested I put a time on my calendar at the end of August to revisit the options for writing workshops, and I did. I expect that, when August rolls around, I’ll still feel like I don’t have the time or energy to take a class. But I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to remember the chopping metaphor and invest time in something that might not produce big results for months down the line.