I think I was in high school the first time I heard the lesson about the jar and the rocks as told by Stephen Covey. If you aren’t familiar with it, the basic premise is that a jar represents the amount of time available during the week, and the rocks, stones, pebbles and sand each represent the tasks we need to accomplish. The idea is that if we try to fill our jar (time) with all the small, not totally meaningful things that surround our life, by the time we look to add the big rocks – family, passions, etc. – there isn’t room. If, however, we fill the jar with big rocks first, then smaller, then the less meaningful sand, we can fit it all in.
As I have reflected on this idea recently, I have wondered about the value of this metaphor. For someone who can’t get the big things done, it works really well. For someone who can’t see whether something is a large rock or a handful of sand, though, it won’t be as meaningful until that first step is completed. First Things First by Stephen Covey is really a great resource to sort this out, and my recent favorite read about getting my life in order is Essentialism by Greg McKeown.
The first time I sat down and thought through what my rocks were, what my sand might be, I was going into college. My rocks included education & homework, pageant stuff, spiritual growth and work. My smaller rocks were hanging with friends and the work I was doing at the university that allowed me to have a good portion of my education covered. The sand was dating because I wanted to, but didn’t have lots of connections with people in that way.
That was in 1997.
Of course, twenty years later, some of those rocks haven’t been in my jar for a long time. But recently, when I was feeling a little lost and referencing the rocks that I’d put in my jar, I realized I hadn’t been intentional with my planning for a while. It’s not that I don’t want to – I do! – but sometimes, when you are in the midst of putting out a million little fires, you forget about the big things.
Ah-ha. I’d filled my jar with sand.
It’s not the first time I’ve had this realization. I can promise it won’t be the last. The tricky thing about putting first things first is that we have to remember to check in. A single sorting of priorities does not have a long shelf-life, and each phase of living presents us with different demands.
We also need to add to this the reality that many of us have intertwined our lives with the lives of others, in one way or another. My life includes a husband who I really enjoy being around, three kids (12, 14 & 16) who need guidance and driving and advice and reminding, a full-time job and I’m hoping to soon add a book contract. I can’t wake up on morning and say I want to just write that day, that I’ve decided it’s the greatest priority. Shoot, I can’t even do that with my laundry (not that I’d really want to…). I have both bosses and employees who rely on me. Regularly dismissing my kids in favor of crafting stories is probably something that would get child services called on me. Working longer hours to get work more caught up would put my family off balance.
We need to take time to dump out our jar, look at the rocks that made it last time, the ones we wish we would have put in, the ones we just added, and reflect concerning how the rocks and stones and pebbles and sand helped us toward our goals and dreams.
There are a couple ways to do this:
You may be the kind of person who likes to write down your goals and plans with a pen or pencil. You may get a great deal of satisfaction out of crossing things off, making notations, etc. I love the idea of planners and covet many, but when it comes to actual implementation, it gets left behind.
I keep a notebook in my messenger bag where I can write ideas down that I want to explore later. This is not where I take notes in meetings, but some notes from some meetings do get transferred because I think they can have value. This blog post was written in there as:
revisit Stephen Covey’s jar metaphor – just because you prioritized once doesn’t meant life is prioritized forever
Like I said – ideas. Once I’ve completed this, I’ll put a checkmark by it to remind myself that I’ve written about it. That does not mean I know everything about it and a check instead of crossing it off lets me still play with the concept.
I know lots of people who thrive on the creativity and design capabilities of bullet journals. You have the freedom to create your own categories, to track progress in a way that is meaningful to you. I tried a bullet journal for two days and found I spent so much time trying to make it look like the ones on Pinterest that I was losing time instead of reclaiming it.
The original reason I got my very first smart phone about 8 years ago was because I was tired of carrying calendars everywhere. I had the kids calendar and my work schedule and volunteer dates and, and, and . . . it was quite ridiculous. When someone suggested I just get a wall calendar and use that to keep everything in place, I knew it was time for something new. Now, all my kids (with their smart phones) and my husband have access to the family calendar (each person has a different color) and I have added work related calendars to it. On my computer, I view a week at a time, on my phone, a day (I wear glasses on purpose and can’t read that many things that small). It is the system (accompanied by Wunderlist to keep track of to-dos) that has worked for me.
There are many people who say ending the day by planning for the next is the key to success. There are others who suggest the best thing is to set aside a few minutes in the morning for meditation and prioritization. I find I’m on the weekly schedule, at least for thinking about the big things, but then training myself to do a check-in during down times is key. I’m far from perfect, but I don’t imagine this is the sort of thing we can ever, really, be perfect at. Still, I think this, like so many other things, will have a quality impact on us and the people we love if we keep striving for better.