Stephen R. Covey of the famed The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is known for a particularly hard hitting demonstration, an analogy for designing a life (something I’ve written about before here and here too).
A large glass container is set out in front of the audience and a few large rocks are placed in it. Then pebbles are added in to fill in the space between the rocks. Is the container full, he asks the audience? They say it is. So he takes a bucket of sand and pours it into the container filling the space between the rocks and pebbles. How about now, he asks, is it full? The audience says yes. So he takes out a bucket of water and pours it into the container.
What have we learned from this experiment, he asks the audience? One person offers, “That no matter how full something looks you can always get more into it?” Not quite, says Covey. The lesson here is that if you don’t put the big rocks in first you won’t be able to fit everything in.
Put the big rocks in first.
What are the big rocks? We each know our own.
There are only a few rocks. But it’s so easy to get thrown out of perspective and just set one rock in the container (say, career) and end up leaving out the other big rocks until you have more time. You’ll put those in later. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe as a New Year Resolution. In the meantime we let the sand and pebbles and water pour in, and in many a sad case it’s not until one is sick, or detached from their family, divorced, or near the end of a long life filled to the rim with the pebbles and sand, that we realize what we forgot to make sure the big rocks got into the container.
This is not easy to do. Discerning what is a pebble and what is actually part of a big rock can be tricky and takes every day conscious evaluation. So we stop going to yoga classes, and holding hands, we skip the kid’s play at school, or volunteering in the classroom. Sometimes they seem like pebbles but sometimes they are a piece of something much bigger. Likewise those constant busy tasks that keep you scrambling trying to keep everything in perfect order? They seem so urgent, so important. Much of it? Sand.
So this morning with dishes in the sink and a bed still to be made, and more and more work and busyness to tend to: I meditate, exercise, and head straight here to my coffee shop for a bit of writing. Can this be the way I do things every day? Yes. Will it be? No. But at least for now, and as long as possible, my mantra:
Big Rocks first. Sand later.