Put the Big Rocks in First in the Jar of Life
By Timothy S. Jacobson
~The Nonprofit Provocateur~
Management gurus often talk about the concept of “putting the big rocks in first,” and for good reason.
The illustration involves trying to fit a quantity of materials into a wide-mouth jar or bucket, when the materials come in significantly different ranges of size. The usual demonstration involves big rocks, small gravel and sand. Sometimes, water is used, too. If one puts the big rocks in the bucket first, the smaller particles can be poured over the top and shaken in to fill the cracks. If one performs the maneuver by trying to fill the container with the same quantity of materials but in reverse order (i.e. smallest grain sizes first), the big rocks will not fit.
This provides a useful analogy for time management and resource utilization. If one spends his or her time by first focusing on all the little, insignificant tasks and demands that arise, the big, important items will never get done. Instead, if one focuses first on the biggest, most important tasks, it is more likely that the small stuff will resolve itself or, perhaps more likely, accomplishment of the big things will result in an increase of resources and capacity that can be used to deal with the less significant items, as well.
Sounds great, right? But how does one put that into practice? How does one even begin to discern what the “big rocks” are?
Stephen Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, provides a helpful framework for prioritizing activities. He divides tasks into four quadrants, depending on whether each task is important or not important, and whether each task is urgent or not urgent. The biggest rocks are those things that are both important and urgent. Next, in Quadrant II are items of importance but not urgent. Quadrant III is filled with tasks that are urgent but not important, and then there is Quadrant IV with trivial items lacking in both importance and urgency.
The primary problem for less effective people is that they get drawn into spending time first on matters of urgency, whether important or not, or they spend a majority of their time focusing on tidying up things of little consequence, even if not urgent. In those situations, there is little time for dealing with important matters. By letting the important tasks slide, the urgency increases, and it becomes even harder to accomplish them or do them well.
The only way to avoid getting sucked into trivial but urgent items is to evaluate and plan one's activities. Without having done that analysis, urgency will inevitably subvert importance.
Highly effective people focus on the important items first, which results in an expansion of their influence and resources, which makes accomplishing other things all the easier.
However, please realize that the “big rocks” concept should not be taken to the extreme and does not mean that everything you want to do in life will fit as long as you do the activities in a certain order. Some activities that come along inevitably must be cut in order for a person to be truly effective.
Don't forget about Covey's concept of “sharpening the saw.” One must take time to plan activities, undergo training, and refresh oneself. Otherwise, one will experience rapidly diminishing results. If a lumberjack fails to pause to sharpen his saw, his effectiveness at cutting trees will be greatly diminished.
I've heard the “sharpening the saw” principle expressed another way that may be easier for people today to grasp: Would you ever feel so busy driving somewhere that you would refuse to take time to gas up the car? How effective do you think you can be in getting to your destination by keeping your foot on the gas pedal even after the tank has run dry?
You can even apply the concept of the “big rocks” to marketing and fundraising for nonprofit organizations. One way is to examine the range of marketing and fundraising vehicles an organization has available and the various tasks presented. Divide these items into four quadrants based upon the level of importance (return on investment) and urgency. Then start tackling the important-urgent items first, followed by the important-non-urgent items. And don't forget to pause once in a while to sharpen the saw.
P.S. ‘Like’ and/or 'Share' this article below if you agree that the Big Rocks principle is useful for getting a better handle on time management, and use the comment field to add your own thoughts or examples of how you've seen this idea put into practice.
P.P.S. There is a fun and helpful video illustration of the “big rocks” principle that can be found at http://youtu.be/DLGeEjUpCxY
Tim Jacobson is president of Visjonær Consulting & Communications. He's been a board member and executive of a number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's the executive producer of a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS and author of the book Explosive Nonprofit Marketing: Tips from the Trenches, to be published in 2014. He has led successful efforts to raise millions of dollars for nonprofit organizations in the form of grants and individual donations. He's been featured numerous times in magazines, newspapers and on TV for his organizational consulting, nonprofit and business leadership, his film and writing projects, and his exploration of international peace issues.
This article is copyright (c) 2013, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.