You lead a busy life. There never seems to be enough time to do the things you really want to do, the things that make you happy. You’re too preoccupied with work, errands, and other demands placed upon you by the outside world.

In Work Less, Live More, Bob Clyatt argues that you can make time for the important stuff. The secret, he says, is to prioritize, and he offers an analogy. (I’ve learned recently that this idea may have originated with Stephen R. Covey in his book First Things First.) Here’s how it works:

Imagine you have a jar. You want to fill this jar with some rocks and some sand. What’s the best way to do it?

  • One way is to add the sand to the jar first and then add the rocks. If you did this, however, you’d quickly find that it’s impossible to make everything fit. With a layer of sand at the bottom of the jar, there’s no room for the rocks.
  • On the other hand, if you begin by putting the rocks in the jar, when you pour in the sand it will sift downward to fill in the gaps and the cracks between the rocks. Everything fits.

Here’s a video that demonstrates this idea in action:

This same principle applies to your personal life. You can achieve well-being by prioritizing the Big Rocks in your life. This may sound elementary, and you may be tempted to ignore this advice. Don’t. This one idea revolutionized my life. It made me happier and more productive. By focusing solely on the things that were most important to me — by making room for the Big Rocks — I was able to reclaim my life and time.

A few years ago, after first reading about this idea, I sat down and drafted a list of the things that were most important to me. I decided that my Big Rocks were fitness, friends, writing, Spanish, and travel. If these weren’t in my jar, I wasn’t happy. So, I made sure to squeeze these in before anything else. Once these rocks were in place, once these things were on my calendar, then I’d fill the remaining space with the sand — television, email, errands, and so on.

During the past year, I allowed the sand to squeeze out some of my big rocks. For instance, I stopped exercising. I used to say that “fitness is job one”. I grew complacent, though, and fell out of the habit of going to the gym. Fitness was no longer a job at all! Instead, I put more sand in my jar.

Last week, I sat down to re-examine my schedule and my priorities. I realized I wasn’t spending any time on Spanish or exercise. I immediately made changes. I returned to my Crossfit gym (which has been humbling) and I set aside time to study Spanish.

How can discover your Big Rocks? To construct your ideal schedule, you have to become clear on what your priorities are. We’ll explore a couple of ways to do that in the weeks ahead.

9 Replies to “The Big Rocks: How to Prioritize Your Life and Time”

  1. I’m curious what other people’s “sand” is. Especially the sand that’s filling up jars, rather than the sand we’ve already learned to ignore. I feel like my biggest “sand” time sink is just screwing around on the internet, but I feel like the allegory expects it to be stuff that’s “useful” but not important. Say, organizing your spice drawer or something, as opposed to totally frivolous stuff like looking at funny pictures on the internet. I also feel like my “sand” fills it’s appropriate place as “sand” though, as it’s something I do to fill the time when I wasn’t doing anything important anyway.

    Lately I spend my time on (largely in this order):
    Other Stuff

    I’d like to move bicycling back up to a level at least on par with motorcycles, but I’m not worried about this situation.

  2. Martin says:

    We are in the same boat with making fitness and Spanish priorities amigo. My problem has now become that I train too much I feel. I do pro wresting and BJJ. I want to find a way to spend more time on writing/my Spanish.

    Few experiments include: waking up early to write and not going to bed until I crush a few Spanish lessons.

  3. @freepursue says:

    I absolutely love that analogy and keep it in mind regularly, though I’m not always 100% successful in following the lesson.

    I first heard it with golf balls, marbles, sand and water about a decade ago. Whatever the medium, it’s a powerful visual representation of how we need to make more room for what matters before the noise of “other stuff” takes over.

    My “golf balls”? Fitness, sleep, family, friends, continuous learning, proper nutrition and time in nature.

  4. I love this demonstration, and find a lot of parallels to how we prioritize our limited funds. We could go out for lunch each workday and grab a coffee on our way to work, mindlessly sign up for 2 zillion channels of cable and 15 magazine subscriptions — and those little grains of sand add up and nudge out the important things that we should spend our money on; Like retirement, education, etc.

  5. Great analogy J.D. I know one thing that was a big shift for me was switching my schedule to work nights. Before I had to get up to an alarm clock, go to a stressful job all day, and by the time I got home I wasn’t much in the mood for working out, reading, or doing positive thinking. By working nights I now no longer have an alarm clock and I can wake up fresh and first thing workout and write down my goals for the day. If I do have a stressful night at work it is often short lived by going to sleep right away when I get home. Do you have any tips on how to best pour the sand in last? Thanks

    Davey Pockets

  6. Edith says:

    Cuando no hago las cosas que más me importan, por más que haya logrado en el día, me siento vacía. Así que este artículo me gustó. Por cierto, ¿cómo va tu español? Saludos.

  7. Jeff A. says:

    How specific should the Big Rocks be? Off the top of my head, my big rocks might be:

    Time Outside
    Personal Improvement
    Time with my puppy

    My sand is definitely time suck activities: TV (gah for someone who doesn’t even really like TV, I can’t believe how much TV I watch) and surfing the web.

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