Big Rocks First – A Useful Metaphor?
If you think of your week as seven jars, seven empty jars, and you go into each day without planning ahead, you will easily fill that day’s jar up with little things. Pebbles and grains of sand and whatever other trash comes your way will completely fill up your jar … soon there will be no room for the Big Rocks.
Your jars fill up faster than you know it, and once your jars are full, you’re done. You can’t get a bigger jar. So what can you do?
The Big Rocks Demonstration
When trying to demonstrate how best to approach a laundry list of tasks, many productivity gurus will use a demonstration called ‘big rocks first’. It goes a little something like this…
To start with, said guru will show you an empty jar and tell you that they want to fill it with rocks, stones and sand. To start with, they will try and fill it by putting the small items in first and then progressively adding the larger stones. First they will fill the bottom with water and sand. Then they’ll pour in a bunch of pebbles, then they will put in some large rocks. Lo and behold, the large rocks will sit on top of the pebbles and sand on the bottom and they won’t go in.
Next they’ll take the approach of adding the ‘big rocks first’. Now they’ll put in the large rocks, then sprinkle in some pebbles and a little sand before finally pouring on the water. As if by magic, the sand, pebbles and water will now settle in around the large stones and thus more will fit into the jar.
What Does it All Mean?
The lesson that these experts are trying to make with this demonstration is that starting each day with your top priorities or most important tasks first, will allow you more time and energy to complete the smaller tasks. Doing big tasks at the start of the day/year when you have lots of time, energy and resources will allow you to do a good job. Then at the end you can ‘fit in’ the smaller tasks when you get the time and without needing the same amount of energy or focus.
Is the metaphor True?
So this is a nice little visual demonstration but it’s important to remember that metaphors do not always reveal truth about unrelated topics. Put simple: the times on your business to-do list are not rocks and nor is your day a jar. In some cases similar rules will apply, but not always.
And the truth is that often the little things begin to fill our bucket or jar when we aren’t paying attention. Some days we need to let the big rocks just sit there and we need to tend to the pebbles, sand and water of our life.
Sometimes you see, it can make sense to complete easier tasks first in order to prevent yourself from procrastinating and putting off work. In other cases, some small tasks like making calls might be causing you stress and preventing you from focusing in which case it might be better to do those first.
By and large, the ‘big rocks first‘ approach has a lot going for it, but you should assess each case on its individual merits – sometimes smaller jobs do benefit from being ticked off quickly. And as long as you start each day, each week identifying the BIG rocks, along with the medium sized rocks, you will be fine adding some sand and pebbles here or there.