Measure Twice, Cut Once

Why taking a step back to double check your work as you go is important.

I’m not going to lie, I’m really not the measure twice, cut once type of guy. At least not when it comes to cutting actual wood. I owned a home once, and designed and built 3 decks for it myself. I did do some measuring, out of necessity, but was often guilty of, rather than reaching for the tape measure, grabbing a nearby piece of wood the same size as the one I wanted, and using that to draw a line to guide my saw.

measure twiceThis worked well enough within the context of building a deck. The deck needed to be strong, but not precise. It wasn’t going into orbit; it was holding my grill, a few tiki torches, and a few friends, usually during football season.

I think that most people do this as well, save for those old wizened grandpa types that always admonish such behavior and draw the tape measure twice every time. For me, the thought of measuring twice made me feel like I doubted my ability to measure. I mean, I just measured. Why would I measure again? I figured that I would just get the same results, and that it was a waste of time.

As someone whose job it is to constantly be optimizing process, however, this justification would bother me as I dripped sweat into my safety glasses, sawdust flying everywhere. So one day, halfway into building the second deck, I tested the theory. I started to measure, and then measure again, just to see if the old adage had any weight.

It turned out that I would measure once and then measure again and the line would be in the same exact place it was the first time I drew it. No surprise to me. That’s what I expected to happen, and I felt vindicated, at first. But then I realized that I was barely removing the measuring tape before drawing the second line. I wasn’t really measuring twice; I was measuring once, twice.

So I started standing up straight between measures, removing the tape entirely, taking a deep breath, and then measuring again. Suddenly I started to get different results most times. I began to notice things, like the metal end of the measuring tape being stuck on the staple at the end of the 2 x 4 I was cutting, skewing the results. Or bends in the tape where my knee rested on it, shortening the measure. Or an uneven end to the wood, giving me in a different result depending on where I placed the tape.

The end result of this realization was that my cuts became more precise. And if that was all that happened, it might not have been worth the extra effort – after all, my decks weren’t supposed to be calibrated to a perfect balance. My football buddies and I wouldn’t notice a .10 degree tilt when we were deck-gating. And the soil would inevitably shift anyway, creating at least a .10 degree tilt over time. So what was the point?

By taking the time to pause between measures and take a deep breath, I began to notice that all of my work became more precise. Without knowing it, I started to measure each decision twice, think ahead twice, and look twice before hitting the nail on the head. I would think twice about whether this particular nail needed to be driven into this particular piece of wood in that exact spot.

It felt like second-guessing, but as I put this principle into practice it become more about creating focus. About creating deliberation, about acting rather than reacting. Taking the time to plan something out, and then verifying execution of the plan at each step injected thoughtfulness into my process. It removed the rote automation of measure, cut, hammer, and turned the act of building a deck into more of an art. And even though I was the architect, foreman, and worker on that particular job, it reminded me that I was equally invested in all of those roles, and that each of those roles had a responsibility to ensure the quality of the product – at every step of the process.

How can you become more precise in your actions?  Add your response to this Reflection at

Originally published on  September 29, 2011

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