PRIORITIES are the Big Rocks

Each year, a university professor would begin his first class by teaching his students what he saw as one of the most important life lessons about priorities.

He would start by pulling out a glass jar. He would place a few fist-sized rocks into the jar, to the top, and ask the students:

"Is the jar full?"

The class would answer with a unanimous "Yes".


The professor would then pour a hand-full of gravel into the jar. Shake it to make some more space and pour another one, and another one till the jar seemed full again. He would, then, ask again:

"Is the jar full?"

The class would hesitate this second time.

"Probably not!"

"Good", the professor would say and he would pull out a bag of sand, pause, smile and pour a part of it into the jar. The sand would cover the spaces between the rocks and the gravel. He would once again ask:

"Is the jar full?"

The students would have caught on his trick by now and answer with a sure:


"Good," the professor would smile. He would, then, open a can of beer and pour it into the jar, filling it completely. The class would laugh as the professor would ask the last question:

"What's the point of all this?"

"That no matter how much you have to do, you can always do more," one student would inevitably reply.

"That besides all the grit, there's still time for a beer," another would try.

"Not really. Though you can give it whatever meaning makes sense to you, do you think all the content would've fit in if I poured them in another order?"

"No," the class would react.

"Exactly. To make sure they all fit, you need to start with the big rocks. The big rocks are the important things in life – your purpose, health, family, friends, love, making a difference etc. The gravel is your milestones, what you do to make sure the big ones are fulfilled and aligned, such as your job, your projects, the activities you get involved in. The sand represents the smaller actions you take to support the gravel. In other words, your habits. The beer, well, it's the fun part of life. All in all, to make sure you live a full and fulfilled life, you need to put in the big rocks first. Start with the most important things. Namely, it's a matter of priorities." 

Priorities - The One Thing

For years, I would begin every day with a to-do-list as long as my arm. In other words, I would begin with the sand. So, when it was all poured into "the jar", there was no more space left for anything else. Not even the beer. Therefore, my great challenge was to label my rocks – to know where my priorities lay.

Nowadays, I only have a not-to-do list. I narrowed down my focus to just three big rocks. Those are my priorities.

To increase productivity, though, within the first 3 hours of the day, I focus on My One Rock - that one thing that, when completed, will make everything in the future easier or unnecessary.

I learned of this concept from Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan's book - The ONE Thing.

Instead of staring at a list and picking the easiest items to tackle, I begin every workday with 3 hours of focused work on my ONE Thing. No email, no calls, no meetings, no interruptions. 

When my kids were young, I would tell them never to believe it when someone said they had no time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. What people mean by "I don't have time for that" is, actually, "It's not a priority". It's not one of my big rocks. 

This backfired quickly when one of my boys called me at the office one day asking to take him fishing. I tried telling him I didn't have the time. My son reminded me that what I meant to say was that I had other priorities.

Before you act on your priorities you need to know what they are.

For instance, because one of my big rocks is health, I KNOW that for everything to fall into place, I need to GO to the gym every day. I GO because I KNOW it's a priority, not because I feel like it. Nonetheless, I do feel great after the workout. 

Knowledge + action = results (or feelings).

Important or Urgent

It's easy to give up thinking "it's all important." Truth is, it's not ALL important. We're just afraid to "miss out" on who-knows-what, but not everything urgent is important.

Take a minute to answer:

"What is the one thing I can do now that would make everything in the future easier or even unnecessary?"

- or -

"What can I do now that would make me healthier, happier or wealthier in the future?"

To get organized and for your priorities to matter, you need to have some sort of a personal productivity system in place to hold yourself accountable. If you've got a tried and true system, great. If not, find one that's right for you by starting with The Eisenhower Matrix.

We all have all the time there is, it's just a matter of priorities.

The Eisenhower Matrix – a prioritization tool

Between 1953 and 1961, Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States of America. Before that, he had served in the US Army during World War II and after his presidential term, he became NATO's first supreme commander. 

In his entire career, not only would Eisenhower have to make some of the toughest decisions we can imagine, but he would also need to prove effective and efficient in implementing them. This led him to invent the prioritization tool.

"What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important" – Dwight Eisenhower

 You "Do First" or "Schedule" what is most important, and you "Delegate" or "Not do" what is least important. Vertically, you "Do First" or "Delegate" what needs to get done fast, and you "Schedule" or "Not Do" what you can postpone. It's as simple as that.

Focus first on your important tasks – the big rocks, the One Thing. Secondly, schedule your gravel - what's important, but not-so-urgent, including the fun things in life. Then, if possible, delegate someone else to pour the sand - what needs to get done, but isn't that important; and, finally, delay or not do what's neither important nor urgent.

How to Prioritize the Big Rocks

1. Begin with the end in mind

You should have an idea when each of your tasks is due--or at least when you'd like them done by--and how much time is required to work on each item. Start with the due dates, take into account how much effort you need to put into each one and how much input you need from others, and work backwards to find out what you should be working on right now (or what you should have already started, in some cases).

2. Work backwards

Time is usually the one variable most of us can't change. Deadlines are deadlines, and often we're not the ones who set them. This is where working backwards from due dates is crucial. Start a spreadsheet and mark down when each project or task on your plate needs to be finished. Then work backwards to the present day, taking into account everything each specific to-do that needs to be done to get from here to there, and how long it takes to complete.

3. Cover your backside

Finally, once you've taken some time to determine what's really important and arranged them based on what you think you should tackle first, it's time to put it in writing and share it with everyone involved.

Set expectations with:

A) Others - for when you'll get your work done for them

B) Yourself - for when you'll have time to work on your own projects.

This is more important in a work setting, but involving others in your non-work projects can also keep you and them accountable.

How to Make Sure the Sand Gets in

1. Ask for help

If you're prioritizing tasks that involve other people, like your family, friends, and coworkers, talk to them. Find out when they need your help, how much work is backed up behind the things you're working with them on, and if they can lend a hand. If they don't need you for another week and someone else needs you tomorrow, or if they aren't as busy as you are, you know what to do.

2. Delegate

It's easy for us to toil away in obscurity, quietly hating our lives and our jobs, growing more frustrated with every passing minute. Meanwhile, asking a friend or a boss for help, might actually prove useful.

3. Outsource

Cost means more than just money. It also means people who can help you, or services you can call to give you a hand or take the load off. If someone else worked on it for you, would you finish it faster? What if a teammate could take part of the job off your hands and you could pick it up later? Perhaps there's an affordable program or application that can automate the process for you. I use websites like and to help me with everything from logo design, to graphic design, and social media management.


If your To-Do’s have to be done by a certain time and you can't get help, it's time to make some deals with the people waiting on you. Let them know what you can deliver by when, and then explain what you can give them later. This sends the message that you're not trying to avoid the work you have to do, but you're giving them something they can use now, as you keep working in the background to get them everything else on their wish list.

"The best way to change your life is to change your priorities."

- Ben Kubassek

From my new book KNOW GO & GROW: The Entrepreneur Within You. Get your copy today at  Amazon.

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