The Parable of the Rocks, Pebbles, Sand, and Water

The Parable of the Rocks, Pebbles, Sand, and Water

I thought this parable was something every personal development fiend or ambitious person had heard of.

But today, I talked to two people who had never even heard of it. So, clearly, not everyone has been exposed to it.

As I begin to rethink my schedule again, this is the parable that has been running through my mind.

So, what is it? And what can it teach us about prioritization and productivity? Read on.

Rocks, Pebble, Sand, and Water

A University professor wanted to illustrate how each of us can better prioritize and manage our time.

He brought several items with him to class – a jar, rocks, pebbles, sand, and a glass of water.

The professor filled the jar with the rocks and asked the students whether the jar was full? They answered “yes, it’s full.”

But he then proceeded to fill the jar with the pebbles. He shook the jar until the pebbles neatly arranged themselves in between the crevices left by the larger rocks.

“Is it full now?”

This time, his students were sure the jar was full.

The professor then filled the jar with sand, which filled the remaining space left by the rocks and the pebbles.

Without skipping a beat, he also poured the glass of water into the jar as everything neatly settled inside.

The class was astonished.

“Try to fill the jar with the sand first,” said the professor, “and there would be no room left for everything else.”

The Moral of the Story

There are different variations on this parable. But the message is the same:

The rocks represent your greatest priorities.

The pebbles represent important priorities.

The sand represents minor priorities.

And the water represents everything else.

When prioritizing what matters to you, you must put the rocks in the jar first. They will not fit later. And so it is with the pebbles, sand, and water. They only work in that specific order.

For an entrepreneur, that means putting revenue generating activity first thing in your day. If you put it off until later, you will not get around to it. But if you start with it, you’ll either have plenty of time left over for everything else you need to do, or the act of completing a “rock” project will make all other activity irrelevant.

See what else I’m up to.

Priority vs. Productivity – Which is More Important?

Priority vs. Productivity – Which is More Important?

Our heads fill with ideas that actively excite us. If we could, we’d dive right into working on them today.

Then reality sets in. And we’re cast into our daily responsibilities, chores, errands, and of course, work.

The life of a creative or creator isn’t all that glamorous once you realize that creativity often happens in the margin of life, if at all.

But if we can distinguish productivity from priority, we can unleash the idea machine in a more organized manner.

The Anatomy of a “Productive” Day

Tell me if you’ve had days that have gone something like this:

You wake up, make your bed, and get a few minutes of exercise in before meditating.

You’ve got a few urgent emails to answer, so after breakfast, you process your messages. You also check your phone, answer voicemails, respond to texts, and do your usual rounds on social media.

Afterwards, you’ve got a little bit of work to do, so you hop on your computer, put in your remote hours, have lunch, and finish up for the day.

Now it’s time for a little bit of creative work. Finally. So, you work on a song. Or write a poem. Or read a few Photoshop tips online.

After about an hour of that, you have supper, write a blog post, do another round on social media, update your website, answer emails, and wrap up the day by reaching out to your collaborators.

This all sounds very productive. But is it?

Getting Many Things Done isn’t Productivity

If any part of this sounds judgmental, know that I have had many days that have gone exactly as described.

I did this, that, and the other. I got a lot done. To-do items got checked off. Tasks got completed. Emails got answered.

But I’d still finish the day hyper aware of the projects I’d never gotten around to. The things I’d identified as being closest to my identity. The creative pursuits that would bring the greatest results, joy, or fulfillment.

Somehow, those things just weren’t getting done. They were always relegated to tomorrow.

I’d have the odd day where I’d make big progress on things that mattered to me, but I wasn’t consistent.

And we know from Jerry Seinfeld’s example that if you want to achieve something meaningful in your creative pursuits, you don’t want to break the chain.

Changing How We Think About Productivity

The way most people approach productivity is to see how much they can accomplish on a given day, week, month, or year.

And I promise you, it’s possible to get a lot done in a year. I feel like I’ve lived that year over and over since discovering Steve Pavlina’s article, Do It Now – the same post I suggest everyone read if they want a crash course in productivity.

I’ve written 365 songs in a year. I’ve launched two books in a year. And I’m smack dab in the middle of publishing daily blog posts for a full year (today is day 142).

But this is where quotes like the following are thoroughly unhelpful:

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years. – Bill Gates

Do you even have a 10-year vision for what’s possible? I would venture to guess you’re in the top 2 to 3% of the population if you do.

Most of us are in the moment. Worried about whatever we’re worried about. Thinking about how the money is going to come in. And so forth.

It’s okay if you’re not seeing 10 years ahead. Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (affiliate link) even says we shouldn’t obsess over the extraordinary or try to become like them.

What I’m saying is this:

If getting a lot done is the point, then there’s nothing wrong with this approach. But if the point is to get the right things done, then it’s critical we revise our method.

How to Prioritize Your Priorities

It’s okay if you can’t see 10 years ahead. What you need to identify are the projects that are important but not urgent.

If you aren’t familiar with author Stephen Covey’s four quadrants, then take some time to acquaint yourself with them.

For us creatives, for the most part, it’s going to fall under the category of a book, a series of paintings, an album’s worth of music. Basically, a product.

You don’t know why, but you just never seem to get around to it, am I right?

I mean, sure, you might mess around with graphics in Canva or make an outline for your book, but are you getting any of the real work done?

One of the key reasons we end up putting off the important, non-urgent work is because it’s not urgent. We easily get swallowed up in the world of urgent instead.

And it’s not bad that we deal with the urgent. But it has a way of stealing from our productive working hours. After all, there’s only so much time in the day.

So, What’s the Solution?

The solution is relatively simple, and it can be found in a classic analogy that has been passed down through the years. It has been credited to many people, suggesting that its source is unknown.

Either way, here it is in simplified form:

You have a jar. Sitting beside it are rocks, pebbles, sand, and water.

The question is – how do you fit the rocks, pebbles, sand, and water in the jar?

If you put it in in the wrong order, the jar will certainly overflow.

But if you put it in as follows, it all works out:

Rocks, pebbles, sand, and finally, water.

Rocks are your big projects. Pebbles are your important tasks. The sand represents your smaller to-do items. Water is everything else.

So, if you do everything in the right order, there is more than enough time and energy in the day to accomplish what matters most to you.

If you do everything in the right order, there is more than enough time and energy in the day to accomplish what matters most to you. Click To Tweet

If you do it out of order, and don’t prioritize, you will struggle to get the most important things done.

And always remember – tackling the most important things in your schedule has a way of making the less important things irrelevant.

Tackling the most important things in your schedule has a way of making the less important things irrelevant. Click To Tweet

Final Thoughts

Productivity without prioritization is just getting things done.

Productivity with prioritization is effectiveness. Effectiveness is what most people really want.

And we are most effective when we focus on the few things that matter instead of the many things that need to get done.

We are most effective when we focus on the few things that matter instead of the many things that need to get done. Click To Tweet

If you focus on the few things that matter, you will be able to end more days feeling accomplished. And if you keep doing that, you will hold a product in your hand before long.

What is your strategy for productivity? How do you manage your priorities?

Let me know in the comments.

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