Little Rocks, Big Rocks, and Life

How fast do you answer emails and texts? Are you known for being responsive to interruptions or quick to weigh in on social media?

Do you make it a point to hold time on your calendar every week to read, meet someone new, or just think?

Stephen Covey shares a story:

A time management expert was speaking to a group of business students, high-powered overachievers, and said, "Time for a quiz."

He pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on the table in front of him. Then he produced a dozen or so fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them—one at a time—into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?" Everyone in the class said, "Yes." "Really?" He asked.

He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel into the jar and shook it so the pieces of gravel could work down into the spaces between the big rocks. Then he asked the group, "Is the jar full?" By this time, the class was onto him. "Probably not," one of them answered. "Good!" He replied.

He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand, which he dumped into the jar. The sand filled the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked, "Is this jar full?" "No!" the class shouted. "Good," he said as he grabbed a pitcher of water and poured it in until the jar was filled to the brim.

He looked at the class and asked, "What’s the point of this illustration?" One eager beaver raised his hand and said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!"

"No," he replied. "That's not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."

Much of the time, we allow ourselves to get caught up in reactively handling the “little rocks” that seem urgent at the moment. We take the phone call, answer the email or text, check out Facebook and Twitter, or chat too long with the person who dropped in our office to tell us a story. We let someone else’s crisis, lack of planning, or immediate interests dictate our schedule.

When we do this, we’re falling victim to what economists call the present bias, which is the tendency to give stronger weight to immediate needs at the expense of long-term intentions. We opt for the immediate gratification of checking off one of Covey’s “little rocks.”

I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent. ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

We let what’s urgent (usually to someone else) become a “big rock” and crowd out what’s important to our lives and well-being over the long-term—truly big rocks like mission, values, goals, relationships, self-improvement, reflection, etc.

Managing big rocks

Think back about last week. How many of the following “big rocks” did you make room for?

Connection. Did you support a colleague in need? Talk to the stranger? Tell someone they did a good job? Have coffee with someone you wanted to get to know?

Give thanks. Did you express appreciation to a colleague or employee for their hard work? Feel gratitude? Say thank you?

Fun. Did you read, watch, or listen to something funny? Play? Dance? Sing along to the radio as you drove? Get silly with a friend and laugh out aloud? Give yourself permission to take a break or may be even do nothing?

Self-care. Did you exercise? Balance out eating the mini-bag of Cheetos with a salad and an apple? Get enough sleep? Use sunblock? Pay attention to your feelings? Show strength by reaching out for support when you needed a boost? Let yourself be satisfied with excellence (which is doable) instead of perfection (which isn’t)?

Self-appreciation. Did you inventory all the good things you are and do (not just what you aren’t or don’t have)?  Did you celebrate your strengths? Cut yourself some slack for your weaknesses?

Channel fear. Did you let your fears control what you did or didn’t do? Use your fear as a catalyst for doing what needed to be done? Express curiosity rather than judgment?

Growth. Did you learn something new? Hold yourself accountable for doing something you said you were going to do? Invest in feeding your soul and that of others? Consider (without beating yourself up) how you could do something better next time? Coach an employee?

Reflect. Did you carve out a few minutes to ponder? Stare out the window? To be and not do? Spend quality time with a friend?

Managing what’s important and what’s urgent is more than mere time management. It’s about the quality of our lives.

What are your big rocks, and what are you doing to fit them in every day?

Image credit: Pixabay