Priority-Based Time Management ~ “Rocks, Pebbles & Sand”

Quick and easy time management hack that change your life- free training & printable.

Have you ever felt like you’ve gotten nothing done all day, even after checking 20 things off your list and you’d been “busy” almost non-stop? This used to happen to me ALL the time, (and there are times when it still does!) Today I’ll solve the mystery for you about why that happens. And guess what? It’s a super simple fix!

First Things First

Let me start by telling you a story. This is one I remember hearing years ago as a teenager, but was powerful enough for me at the time to have stuck with me so many years later.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately since I’ve been working on a new time management course to share with you, and just couldn’t wait to share the story with you because I know you’ll love it too. I hope it resonates with you too, and that you can find ways to apply it to your own life and situation.

I actually didn’t remember where the story came from at first, but since I know that might be important for you to know, I did a little research and found that its original author is unknown, and that it has taken on many different forms and wording through the years. Since I’m an avid Steven Covey fan, I’ll share his version, which he shared in his book: “First Things First.”

I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.” He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.

After we made our guess, he said, “Okay. Let’s find out.” He set one rock in the jar . . . then another . . . then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, “Is that jar full?”

Everybody looked at the rocks and said, “Yes.”

Then he said, “Ahhh.” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He then dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, “Is the jar full?”

By this time we were on to him. “Probably not,” we said.

“Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked at us and said, “Is the jar full?”

“No!” we all roared.

He said, “Good!” and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, “The point is this: if you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?”

“The Big Rocks of Life”- Dr. Stephen R. Covey, First Things First

Awesome, right?

Let’s break it down bit together, because I want to make sure we fully understand the implications this story is trying to teach us. Watch the short video below, or read the breakdown if you prefer. Either way, don’t forget to download the free printable below to determine the “Rocks, Pebbles and Sand” of your own life, and begin outlining your own tasks and where they might fit most effectively within your day.

Watch It!

Read It!

(Most, if not all, of the information below is included in the above video, but I’ve included it here, in written form, for your convenience.)

So let’s break this concept down.

The Jar

Imagine for a moment, that your day is represented by an empty jar. You can’t get a bigger jar- you’re only allotted the space that fills the single jar. Everything you want to do each day must fit into the jar, or it doesn’t get done.

In the story, the facilitator had three different items that each demonstrated different things that need to be done in the day. Some are large, some are medium and some are small.

The Rocks

The rocks in your life represent the SUPER important things that HAVE to get done or you might face strict consequences for ignoring. Rocks are your most important, highest priority items- the items you NEED to finish during the day. The things that would have the most positive impact in your life.

The tasks or categories of task items that the rocks represent will be different for you than for everyone else, but here are some ideas.

  • Spouse or significant other
  • Your Kids
  • Faith or Religion – activity and personal study
  • Extended family
  • Your Health
  • Critical tasks with deadlines ending today

You get the idea. This is definitely not an exhaustive list. Certainly I left some things off that are most important to you, and maybe some of the ones I included don’t apply to you at all. These are just ideas of the types of “rocks” you might have right now, but your job is to look at your life and determine the things you NEED to accomplish today. These are your Rocks.

Follow along with me by downloading your free printable below, and set your rock type and priority system as we go.

Download the printable!

Determine your own personal priorities using the "Rocks, Pebbles & Sand" Time Management Technique.

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Quick and easy time management hack that change your life- free printable.

Pebbles

Pebbles are the secondary tasks or life categories- the things that you SHOULD do, but aren’t quite as important as the rocks. Or they could be things you want to do, but are less important than the things you’ve already labeled as Rocks. Some ideas are:

  • Work or School (you can always find a new job or retake a class if you need to, but you can’t get a new family, or a new body, or a new faith.)
  • Social circle (spending time with friends is always fun and even necessary for personal growth and care, but for you, should it come before your health and your family? You decide.)
  • Community projects like volunteering at a shelter or helping out in your kid’s school or church.
  • Other Important tasks that might not need to be completed today, but that you’d like to do if you can.

Like before, you’ll have to look through your list and decide which things are of mid-range importance. Which things, though they could be important, can be pushed or moved to a different day if necessary, or even just abandoned all together (if it came to that?)

Your Grains of Sand

These are the things you do for fun. To “de-stress”. Things that are optional or have less impact on your overall goals. Things that you’ll do if you can get to it, but are simply less important than the “Rocks” or “Pebbles” of your life.

These tasks are small and seemingly unimportant, but we tend to fill our day with them without realizing it, because they’re easy and give fill us with “instant gratification” from completing “quick wins”. They make us feel that just because we’re checking a bunch of stuff off our list, we’re automatically being productive.

These are things that, though we need some fun in our lives, they can essentially be removed without too much impact on our overall goals and dreams. Things like:

  • Watching Netflix for three hours at a time.
  • Social Media
  • Hobbies & Crafts
  • Gaming
  • Small, optional tasks. (Only you can decide what’s optional and what’s not.)

Again, please don’t think I mean that these activities are inherently bad and have no place in our day- All I’m suggesting is that they alone shouldn’t completely fill your “jar”. Setting and maintaining priorities is essential to a happily balanced life.

The Jar of Life

Let’s now return to the Jar in the story, the Jar of Life. As you complete things during the day, you start to fill the jar with different sizes of items that represent the items or tasks on your schedule. Rocks for big tasks; Pebbles for medium ones, and grains of sand for the small, inconsequential ones.

The problem though, is that so many of us fill our day with the “small” stuff first. We do the “easy” things first. The “fun” things. The ones that give us the most instant gratification. I mean who doesn’t like a “quick win”, right?

But here’s the thing: if we put all the sand grains (small tasks) in first and then the pebbles (the medium tasks), the jar is going to be full before you even get to your “rocks” (big/important tasks). Even if you try to cram just a few of those rocks in anyway, everything starts spilling out onto the floor, and the most important things in your life are forgotten, neglected, or abandoned. It’s like suddenly it’s bedtime and you’re now left feeling like you really haven’t done anything important all day.

And here’s the important part:

This is why we’re feeling overwhelmed, guilty, unproductive, inefficient, stressed and lost in our lives. It’s not because we’re lazy or have no internal drive to complete what’s on our list- it’s just that no matter how many grains of sand you place in your jar, they’ll never make up for ignoring the “rocks” in your life.

Here’s the good news:

We get a fresh start everyday. Each day we’re given a brand-new empty jar, and we get to make a new plan on how we’re going to spend our day.

Things didn’t go well yesterday? Tomorrow’s your chance to start again. You’re not stuck repeating ineffective processes over and over. Figure out what you need to change, make the adjustments and never stop re-evaluating. Constant evaluation equals growth.

So let’s see what happens if we do the important stuff first.

If we put the “Rocks” of our life in first, they’ll all fit in easily. (Unless, of course, you’ve got too many rocks. In that case, you’ll have to choose some to reclassify into pebbles or sand. Your whole list can’t be “critically important”, because then nothing is. The value of an object is measured by it’s relation to others it’s next to. If everything holds the same value to you, nothing holds any value.)

Once you’ve got your rocks (your most important, highest quality items) in your jar, you can start to fill it with the NEXT highest prioroty items: your pebbles. The smaller, yet still substancial, though not as substancial as the previous rocks. They should fit in easily around the rocks, and you’ll be suprised how many can fit, even though the jar looks full with the rocks.

And finally comes the sand. Where you thought you wouldn’t find room, sand can always find a way to fit itself into a small space. Tiny little 15 minute bits of time that maybe couldn’t be filled with a rock or even a pebble. And yet… because they’re the “fun” things we look forward to, we still find a way to fit them in.

You see, the difference here is that the pebbles and sand, being smaller, are more flexible and can be moved around within the jar into places the rocks never could. This is why the rocks need to come first. The rocks are rigid, unchanging, unadaptable. Pebbles and sand are not. (Essentially meaning that you shouldn’t be compromising your family’s general safety or happiness in favor of fitting in a couple episodes of your favorite show.)

Keep in Mind

I know some aspects of this “Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand” metaphor can seem confusing or even contradictory. Here are some points of clarification, along with some things I want you to remember:

  • Though the story has many life-applicable teaching ideas, it is, at the end of the day, still an analogy. Please don’t take it too literally and try to sort your list by size (time it might take to complete) or try to stuff 100 things into one day because that’s how many literal rocks, pebbles, and grains of sand might fit into a jar. The items are used metaphorically to demonstrate how we can get more done when we focus on the important things first. It’s likely you won’t finish everything on your list every day, but that’s where the story shines- it teaches you to focus on the MOST important things first, so that IF things don’t fit into your jar, you know which to put in first.
  • You must choose your own tasks, categories, and priorities. Though I’ve given some examples of what works for me, you can’t go by my life completely. Start with my ideas if you’d like, but definitely take the time early on to determine what is most important to YOU. Without doing this homework, all further time-management techniques will be completely ineffective for you, because your life will have no personal progression or plan.
  • On the days you just can’t get all your pebbles and sand in the jar no matter how well you plan, don’t let yourself get frustrated. It’s perfectly ok, and it’s bound to happen more than once. That’s where this concept of the “Jar of Life” helps- the beginning steps of the exercise suggests that you choose your rock type for each item or category based on how important it is that it gets done TODAY. As long as you’ve completed all your “Rocks” each day, everything else is basically just a bonus, right? You can rest easy knowing you’ve done your absolute best within your personal circumstances.

I hope that you’re beginning to see the power this concept can have in your life- once you determine your BIG ROCKS, you’ll be able to see the things that you need to focus on FIRST in your life, setting the other “smaller” things aside until those most important things are tackled.

To help you do that, I’ve created a simple worksheet that you can go through in just a few minutes. It has spaces for you to determine and then record your Rocks, your Pebbles, and your Sand. Then, you’re prompted to make a plan on the changes you can make to ensure you’re filling your jar with your “Rocks” first every day. Download below.

To help you do that, I’ve created a simple worksheet that you can go through in just a few minutes. It has spaces for you to determine and then record your Rocks, your Pebbles, and your Sand. Then, you’re prompted to make a plan on the changes you can make to ensure you’re filling your jar with your “Rocks” first every day. Download below.

Download the printable!

Determine your own personal priorities using the "Rocks, Pebbles & Sand" Time Management Technique.

You'll be added to the FREE newsletter and be the first to receive updates, discounts and new releases! SPAM-Free & opt-out any time!

Quick and easy time management hack that change your life- free printable.