Prioritize The Big Rocks

Big rocks

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to prioritize the big rocks.

The concept of big rocks is attributed to Stephen Covey, the author of the wildly-popular book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’  Covey points out it’s common for people to focus on easy-to accomplish little things rather than to prioritize more complicated big rocks. This is true at work and in personal life.

In First Things First, Covey uses a vivid story to reinforce this concept:

During a time management course, the teacher places fist-sized rocks in a wide-mouthed glass jar until no more rocks fit into it.  

The teacher asks the class, ‘Is it full?’  The students shout ‘yes!’

Unceremoniously, the teacher adds smaller pebbles to the jar, carefully shaking the jar so the pebbles work themselves into the spaces between the big rocks.

The teacher asks again, ‘Is it full?’  Most of the students tentatively answer ‘yes.’

Smiling, the teacher adds sand the jar which fills the spaces between the rocks and pebbles.

‘Now, is it full?’ the teacher asks. ‘Probably not,’ one tentatively answers.

With a flourish, the teacher pours water in the jar filling it up to the brim.

‘What’s the point of this experiment?’ the teacher asks.

One eager student raises his hand, ‘The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, you can always fit some more things into it.’

‘No,’ the teacher replied, ‘that’s not the point. Imagine if I had put the water or sand in the jar first. There would be no room for the big rocks – the important things. Prioritization is deciding whether to start with big rocks or the sand.’

Since most of us operate under the tyranny of the urgent, we end up prioritizing what’s urgent over what’s important. Instead consider using the Eisenhower Matrix to decide what to work on, what to delegate, and what to avoid.

The big rocks are the important items which may not be immediately urgent but will have significant long-term consequences. If there are eight big rocks that need to be accomplished in a year, I try to space them out two to a quarter. However, given the seasonal nature of my current industry, we often prioritize more during the so-called off-season. In fact, it’s not uncommon to ask my directs to document their “summer big rocks.”

The pebbles are also important but smaller and often more urgent than big rocks. As such, they are easier to fit in the schedule but also more likely to be reprioritized when other pebbles are discovered. I find that you want at least twice as many pebbles as rocks on your prioritization list.

Sand represents things that are urgent, but not important. Sand distracts you, taking away your ability to focus and be productive. If you’re in management, many of the sand items should be delegated to others to free up time for pebbles and rocks. Even if you’re not in management, be careful spending all of your time in the sand. While you may feel good about accomplishing things, but you’re unlikely ever to free up time for what’s important.

At work and in your personal life, don’t get stuck in the sand. Make sure you prioritize the big rocks first.

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