Big Rocks With a Chaser

It has become something of a tradition at Nevins Consulting to send out the well-known “Big Rocks” parable as our last newsletter of the year.

Even if you’ve read this story before, it offers some timely thoughts on how to attend to what’s really important, whether they are things in our professional lives or personal.

We get busier and busier every year.  We work longer hours. By means of wonderful technology we bring 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 continues to nag. “Big Rocks” offers a way to think about it, and this year we have a twist to the fable: an “alternative ending” offered up by one of our clients. We think you’ll like the ending, and urge you to take it up (in spirit if not literally) during this season of family and friends.

May your holidays be wonderful, and all our best wishes for a great 2013.


An expert on the subject of time management 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 in the gravel, 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 called out. 

"Good!" he replied. Next he reached under the table and brought out a bag of sand. He started shaking the sand in, and it sifted down 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 drinking 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!" 

"Nice try," the speaker replied, "but that's really the point at all. The truth this little Mason jar illustration teaches us is simple but powerful: 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?  

Take care to identify your “big rocks” before the new year starts, and then make the time for those things, whether they are starting new business projects, deepening your important stakeholder relationships, increasing innovation, attending better to your own personal health and growth, or just spending more time with 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.

[And now, the “alternate ending”:]

Instead of using water as the last step in completely filling the jar, the professor reached under the table and pulled out two bottles of beer.  One student asked, “What are those bottles for?”  And the professor replied, as he slowly poured the two bottles of beer into the jar, “No matter how busy you are, and how many rocks, how much gravel, or how much sand you put into the jar, you should always make time to have a beer with a friend!”

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

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” —Socrates