The following illustration is fairly well known. But it represents one of the fundamental concepts of effectively managing yourself. So for those who haven’t heard it, here it is as told in Stephen Covey’s First Things First:
One of our associates shared this experience:
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. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he greinned 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, “Well, what’s the point?”
Somebody said, “Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.”
“No,” he said, “that’s not the point. The point is this: if you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?”
The point is: You have to put the big rocks — your most important tasks — in first, or you won’t be able to do them at all. The point is not to do more in less time, but rather to focus on doing what is most important. Covey continues:
Wit the “more is better” paradigm, we’re always trying to fit more activities into the time we have. But what does it matter how much we do if what we’re doing isn’t what matters most?
Our Quadrant II goals [important, but not urgent] are like the “big rocks.” If we put other activities — the water, sand, and gravel — in first, and then try to fit the big rocks in, not only will they not fit, we’ll end up making a pretty big mess in the process.
But if we know what the big rocks are and put them in first, it’s amazing how many of them we can put in — and how much of the sand, gravel, and water fits in between the spaces. Regardless of what else actually does fit in, the key point is tha thte big rocks — our Quadrant II goals — are in first.