To Maximize Your Effectiveness, Identify Your Big Rocks

productivity Feb 09, 2022

Have you heard of the old scenario where you need to fill a jar with some big rocks, pebbles, and sand, and you have to decide what goes in the jar first?

This metaphor was popularized by Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it’s helped masses of self-development enthusiasts visualize the importance of actually prioritizing the things in their lives.

So let’s think about this strategically. If you start by filling the jar with the sand and pebbles, you won’t have room for the big rocks. Instead, we need to work from biggest to smallest— placing the rocks in first, followed by the pebbles and then the sand. When you put the big items in at the beginning, the smaller things can fit in the spaces around them. The same thing is true about your life.

The big rocks represent the things that are the MOST important in your workload and personal life. These are your priorities. The pebbles represent the things of medium importance. These things do influence your life, but have less of an impact long-term. The sand represents the little things that don’t matter as much. These tasks might appear urgent in the moment, but don’t actually push the needle forward on your main goals.

One of the reasons I appreciate this metaphor is because many of us are what I like to call “priority hoarders.” We gather up a never-ending list of so-called “priorities,” forgetting that prioritizing everything results in prioritizing nothing.

If you don’t put the big rocks in the jar first, they won’t fit in later. 

But how do you identify what your actual “big rocks” are? If you live in the modern world, it’s likely that your to-do list is packed with all sorts of assignments— ranging from work tasks to family duties to house maintenance. When everything feels important and urgent, it can be hard to determine what is actually the most vital to our happiness, productivity, and success. 


If not knowing how to prioritize the jumble of tasks in front of you sounds familiar, consider the following questions:


To identify your big rocks, ask yourself:

What are the most important, non-negotiable things you need to take care of on a regular basis?

What actions and decisions have the biggest impact long-term?

Which tasks align with your personal values and vision for your life?


To identify your pebbles, ask yourself:

What actions help your life run smoothly day-to-day?

What tasks create an environment in which you can succeed, even if they don’t directly determine your success?

What in your life feels necessary to maintain, but not necessarily as your most important priority?


To identify your sand, ask yourself:

What tasks do I frequently get caught up in, even though they don’t contribute to my long-term success.

What actions sometimes feel urgent, but have little impact on the outcome? What tasks distract me throughout the day?


Identifying which tasks fall into these different categories can be life-changing.

If you play many roles in your life, you might find it useful to have a handful of different priority lists. For example, I personally have a “Work priority list,” a “Personal priority list,” and a “Relationship priority list.” While it can be challenging to narrow down your actual priorities, do your best to select 1-3 priorities per area. Remember, prioritizing everything results in prioritizing nothing.

What do you think of the “big rocks” metaphor? Does it ring true for you at all? How do you determine your own priorities?



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