Putting the Big Rocks First

Putting the Big Rocks First

One day, an expert was speaking to a group of business students and wanted to drive home a point.

As the speaker stood in front of the group of ambitious young men and women, he said, "Okay, time for a quiz." He pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen 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." Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel and dumped some into the jar. He shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

He smiled and asked the group once more, "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 again and brought out a bucket of sand. He dumped the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more, he asked the question, "Is this jar full?"

"No!" The class shouted. Once again, he said, "Good!" Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, "What is the point of this illustration?"

One of the students raised their hand and said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit more things into it!"

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

Your life is the jar in this story. The small rocks are the urgent, but less important things in your life — the endless to-dos and fires to put out. The big rocks are the most important things in your life. Activities that don’t have hard deadlines but that help you achieve your primary personal, school, and work goals. Big rocks concern spirituality, health, relationships, and professional purpose — the things that ultimately develop your eulogy virtues, aka the things you accomplished that people will celebrate at your funeral.

When you tackle life’s “big rocks” first, you end up having time for everyday life maintenance tasks, as well as for relaxation and fun. But when you put the small rocks — the merely urgent or meaningless — first, the more important things in your life get crowded out. Your life can simultaneously feel super busy and frustratingly stagnant. Your days feel cramped, but you don’t seem to be making any progress on your goals.

So we know why it’s important to put first things first, but how do we do it?

Get Acquainted with Your Future Self

For me, one of the most useful exercises for tackling life’s “big rocks” is to think about my future self. “Future” could be tomorrow, next week, next year, or even the next 10 years. Imagine what your future self looks like. Imagine them standing in the room with you, contemplating how your actions today will affect them in the future.

Before you start your day, ask yourself, “what could I do today that will help my future self?”. Maybe it’s writing the business plan for that startup you want to launch. Maybe it’s adhering to a low carb diet to improve your health. Maybe it’s putting your phone down for 30 minutes so you can meditate or read a book.

The very act of asking that question will lead you to make a more mindful decision. The key here is that you move away from making decisions based on your current state of mind. Emotions like fear, anxiety, and sadness often lead to near-automatic responses: overeating, keeping an important truth secret, or not reaching for that lofty goal in the first place. Remove yourself from the immediate pull of those emotions by looking to your future self as an adviser, a friend, who ultimately wants the best for you because they are you.

Journaling at the start and end of your day can help keep you in sync with your future self. Take some time each day to really think about what you want to do with the precious time afforded to you on a given day. By maintaining a guide stone like this, you’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish within a short period of time.

"Time is our most valuable nonrenewable resource, and if we want to treat it with respect, we need to set priorities" wrote physicist Albert-László Barabási.

"Time is our most valuable nonrenewable resource, and if we want to treat it with respect, we need to set priorities" wrote physicist Albert-László Barabási.

Time is Short

Here’s a hard-hitting fact. By the time most people graduate from high school, they’ve already used up 93% of their in-person time with their parents. Tim Urban, Co-Founder of Wait But Why, describes this phenomenon as the “tail end”. For me, it’s a strong reminder that time is our most valuable nonrenewable resource. We are often so focused on holding onto material things like money, but too frequently we give away our time freely to things that do not matter.

Besides consulting our future selves, it’s useful to remember this fact when determining our priorities, our “big rocks”. Don’t take your time for granted because not even tomorrow is guaranteed. Don’t wait. There may be some things you can do now that you simply won’t be able to do as your mind and body age. Don’t let your aspirations potentially go to the grave with you.

And don’t be fooled about what those aspirations are “meant” to be. Often the biggest rocks in our lives have to do with the people in our lives. Telling someone you care about that you love and appreciate them. Standing up to someone who constantly pushes you down. Daring to make new relationships with people you don’t know. Accomplishing these can be just as if not more meaningful as getting that perfect “summer bod” or being professionally “successful” in the eyes of others.

To close, I’ll leave you with an article on The Top 5 Regrets Of The Dying. Notice how almost all of them have to do with relationships and human perceptions. Do your future self a favor and reflect on these for one minute as you plan out how you want to fill the jar that is your life.

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Note: The beginning parable about life’s “big stones'“ comes from Stephen Covey’s book First Things First. Covey is also the author of the widely read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Also check out the The Art of Manliness for much of the original thoughts on life’s “big rocks” and “small rocks”.

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