We start this lesson in leadership with a classic metaphor:
A professor stood before his class with some specific items in front of him. When class began, he wordlessly picked up a large empty glass jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks about three inches in diameter. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The professor then picked up a bag of pebbles, poured them into the jar and lightly shook it. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks. The students laughed. He asked his students again if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The professor then picked up a bag of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous, “Yes!”
“Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The big rocks are the important things in your life —your family, your health, your friends, your favorite passions — anything that is so important to you that if it were lost, you would be nearly destroyed. These things will make you the most proud at the end of your days.”
“The pebbles are the other things in life that matter, but on a smaller scale. The pebbles represent the secondary things in life like your job, your house, your car. They give your life meaning, but perhaps aren’t the focus of your life’s work.”
“The sand is everything else—the small stuff. The sand represents everything that fills our days, but doesn’t add much value overall.”
“Consider this! What would happen if you started filling the empty jar with the sand? If you put the sand or the pebbles into the jar first, there is no room for all the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your energy and time on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are truly most important. Pay attention to the things that are critical in your life. If you start with the big goals of life, the smaller things will shift and move around to fill in the remaining space. But the reverse is not true.”
It’s difficult to be an effective leader if you’re not available to give proper attention to the “big rocks” because you’re mired in the sand.
This might sound obvious, but many leaders don’t do it in practice. There are only so many hours in the day that can quickly get eaten up by having to put out fires or burn energy on lower priorities.
Determining the Most Effective Use of Your Time
While the anonymous professor above was talking about the scale of life, you can use the big rock, pebble, and sand categories to assign weight to each of your responsibilities as a leader.
Try keeping a log of your activity over a given week, noting how much time you devote to each item that needs your attention. Take a look at the overall pattern of where the highest percentage of your energy is going, and then ask yourself these questions:
- What are your most important leadership responsibilities? Leaders often let critical tasks that impact the future slide off their radar. Consider tasks like: forecasting the future of your team, planning staffing needs and development, continuous improvement to processes, determining strategic direction, etc. Have you gotten sidetracked by daily interruptions that take you away from these leadership “rocks?”
- What “fires” are monopolizing your time day-to-day, forcing you to operate in a reactive mode? Note that these are often the pebbles and sand that we respond to, hour after hour. How can you preventatively invest more time to solve (or diminish) these issues, and consequently, free up time to address your prioritized rocks?
- Which goals do you dream about completing?
- What legacy do you want to create as a leader?
By contrasting how you’re actually spending your time with how you would ideally like to in order to accomplish your goals, some opportunities to make constructive changes might emerge. This could mean a conversation with management to make the case for how your time could be better spent, to everyone’s benefit.
When you set about reprioritizing how you spend your time, choose wisely and be disciplined. It’s not much different than starting a new diet or exercise plan – it’d be easy to slip back into old habits and let your jar fill up with sand and pebbles instead of rocks. In fact, that’s bound to happen some days, and that’s okay. Learn from it and come back the next day with even more determination.