Productivity guru Stephen Covey popularized a very compelling illustration about prioritization in his book, First Things First, using a jar to represent a person’s life. Typically, we haphazardly jam our lives to the full, placing in big rocks (our highest priorities), pebbles (middling priorities), and sand (things we don’t really care about) in a jumbled mess. We then find ourselves in the position that a few “big rocks” (our highest priorities) are left outside the jar of our lives and left undone.
Covey argues that we need to re-prioritize how we spend our time by putting in our “big rocks” first. To demonstrate how people can lead a full lives and prioritize their most things, Covey places the big rocks in the jar first, then the pebbles, and finally, the sand. Supposedly, by placing in our “big rocks” first, then the pebbles, and finally the sand, we can fit in our highest priorities as well as everything else going on in our lives.
The problem with the illustration as author Oliver Burkeman points out is that it doesn’t work. The Big Rocks illustration doesn’t work because life has too many “big rocks” to fit into the jar! The human experience is that you will have to purposefully leave some big rocks outside the jar. You cannot really have more than like two or three “highest” priorities. Between family, work, and church, you’re already going to be maxed out. It cannot be any other way because we’re human. To try to cram more big rocks into your life than can fit is an ungodly striving to be more than you are.
How do we then prioritize our lives properly? Burkeman provides some helpful questions in his book which I’ve adapted here:
- What important things am I going to purposefully fail at? What a jarring question, right?!? But it’s an important question to ask. If life contains too many “big rocks” to fit into our lives, then there are going to be some important things that we leave out. In other words, there are going to be some important things that we neglect giving our attention to in order to focus on the two or three important things we actually can fit into our lives. We cannot be good at everything, which means that we just going to be bad at certain things. We need to get comfortable with that reality.
- Am I pleasing the right people? This question comes from Carey Nieuwhof’s book, At Your Best. So often, we are swayed by the opinion of people who are not the closest to us. We strive to spend our time pleasing all kinds of people often neglecting those closest to us. Who is more important to please, however: your spouse, children, and best friend, or some random stranger who doesn’t like something you posted online? Who is more important to sacrifice for: your church family or a “career” which will never love you back? Is it more important to please our Creator God or some gatekeeper into elite positions of culture? I’m not saying that we never make sacrifices to advance in our jobs. And I’m not saying that we don’t make sacrifices for people we hardly know. What am I saying is this: Are you neglecting the “big rock” people in your life? Don’t do it.
As we reflect on these two questions, they can help us to provide some recalibration to help us get in touch with what is really important in life. Because life is too short to spend time on pointless distractions which pull us away from God, family, friends, and church.