Big Rocks

As most of us are starting to close down for the holidays and looking forward to a well-deserved end-of year-break, we urge you to set aside some time to reflect deliberately on your 2010 accomplishments and 2011 priorities.

We seem to get busier and busier every year. We work longer hours; by means of wonderful technology we carry our work more and more into our personal time; and complaints about “work-life balance” have become a constant drone of background noise.

We are all busier. But are we more productive?

That question brings to mind an old story on the topic of “time management.” As the story goes, an expert on the subject was lecturing to a group of business school students, and to drive home a point he used an illustration those students will probably never forget.

Standing in front of a classroom filled with self-motivated over-achievers, he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on a table. 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, 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 sack of gravel. He slowly began dumping the gravel in, pausing to shake the jar as he did, so the gravel could work itself down into the spaces between the big rocks. Then he smiled and asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?"

Some of the class was starting to catch on. "Probably not," one of them answered.

"Good!" he replied. Next he reached under the table and brought out a bag of sand. He started shaking the sand in, and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, "Now is the jar full?"

"No!" the class shouted.

“Excellent!" he said, and finally he grabbed the pitcher of water off the desk 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 eager student 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," the speaker replied, "that's not really the point at all. 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."

So what is the “time management” lesson here? As we turn the page on another calendar year, ask yourself: what are the “big rocks” in your life, business or personal? How well, really, did you attend to them this past year? Or did you spend too much of your time on the sand and gravel?

For 2011, try to identify your “big rocks” before the year starts, and make the time for them, whether they are new business projects, important stakeholder relationships, innovation projects, your own personal health and growth, or making time for family and friends. We can all keep very busy tending to the sand and gravel, but if we don’t get to the big rocks first, we may never get to them at all.

As always, we’d be interested in hearing your thoughts: send us a note anytime at:

"The older I get, the less I listen to what people say and the more I look at what they do." — Andrew Carnegie