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Professional Development:  Big rocks first

  • Published
  • By By Karen Petitt
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- There is a remarkably effective object lesson about sand, rocks and water representing all the things you need to do and how to make them fit into your “jar” of life, and knowing how it works can give you more time to do the things that matter most.

Spoiler alert: The secret to this puzzle is to put in the big rocks first!

Big rocks can represent things like fitness, family, and church—things that you must do for mental, spiritual and emotional wellness.

Sand can represent the multitude of things you need to do to sustain life, such as work, chores, errands, or school.

Water can represent all the nice-to-do things you want to fit in, such as service, hobbies or pursuing other interests.

Of course, these items will represent different things to people, but the challenge is how do you fit all that into a 24-hour day, or even a week, when your time is so limited?  This is what the jar represents; a finite timeframe or boundary that you cannot control.

In the first jar, the teacher will fill it with with sand, then rocks and finally water, which cannot all fit and as such it overflows.  For the second jar, the teacher puts in the big rocks, then sand—magically filling in all the crevices of the rocks. Just when you think you can’t fit anything else in, water will fill the space even more.

The idea of this object lesson is that prioritizing is not only identifying the big rocks in our lives, but also making sure we’re arranging them in proper order for the best success.

While this makes a lot of sense, it also can be difficult to put into practice.

Most of the time, the amount of work we must do is usually the culprit, but is it really? I’ve been reminded lately that it’s mostly due to the way we manage our time—a factor that we can control.

The FranklinCovey team, who are recognized experts in performance improvement, provided some online training to federal workers recently on how to create a winning culture in government. At the core of this training was the idea that building a better “operating system” is what can help us make effective change in our lives.

Of the many suggestions offered on how to do this is a “Time Matrix” chart, which helped me to re-see that big jar of rocks in a new light.

Briefly explained, it’s a quadrant chart that you can refer to assess if you are spending time on the right thing at the right time.

For example, in the “Necessity Quadrant” there are items that are important and required activities to tackle such as crises, emergency meetings, last-minute deadlines and pressing problems or unforeseen events. This describes every single day doesn’t it? While these things must be done, are they contributing to your productivity and moving you forward on your goals and plans? Most often they are not.

The desired quadrant is the “Extraordinary Productivity” area which is equally high in importance but less urgent in the time we need to devote to it.  In this quadrant is time for proactive work, creating thinking, planning, prevention, relationship building, learning and renewal.  How much time are we devoting to this? Do we have space allocated in our schedules to do this? This is the area where we need to be most often. These are the big rocks.  Yet, are they placed in our time jar first, or do we try to cram them in after the crisis is over?

Another quadrant is called “Distraction,” which are the “not important but urgent items” such as interruptions, unnecessary reports and meetings, other people’s minor issues or unimportant tasks.  This reminds me of the sand that can fill up our time. I know my normal instinct is to knock out all the quick tasks that require immediate attention, or are easy to answer, and that’s OK from time to time, but it should not be a regular means of time management. 

I do make a list each week of what I want to accomplish, yet I carry those things over week after week. Why? Because I’m finding that I’m stuck in the sand, and I know I’m not the only one.  Likewise as commanders or supervisors, are we contributing to “irrelevant meetings” or gatherings? Zoom meetings have been a great convenience, but  almost an excessive amount these days. Some people have spent entire days in zoom meetings. That’s not helping our teams be productive.

The “wasteful” quadrant includes trivial work, avoidance activities, excessive relaxation/TV/Internet/gaming, gossip, etc. I’m sure there are other examples of things we do that are not urgent and not important. Hopefully we don’t find ourselves here too often, but when we do, we can recognize it and eliminate it so we can get refocused back to our productivity quadrant.

If you want ideas for professional developing training, this can be a good exercise for you or your team. Figure out the big rocks—personally and professionally, and then work on just this one time management technique that could help you become more productive. The byproduct can be less time spent stuck in the sand, and more time spent on things that really matter.