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Big Rocks

Updated: May 30, 2022

Steven Covey in his classic book, First Things First, shares a parable on prioritization that spawned the widely used term “big rocks.” It is the story of an instructor giving a lecture on priorities to his class.

As the class took their seats the instructor said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.” He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon glass jar. He set it on the table next to a tray of fist-sized rocks. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get the jar?” he asked.

After the class made their guesses, the instructor said, “Okay, let’s find out.” He placed rock by rock into the jar until it was full. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?” Everybody in the class looked at the rocks and nodded yes.

Then he said, “Ahhh,” and reached under the table and pulled out a jar of gravel. Then he dumped some of the gravel in the jar of big rocks and shook the jar, and the gravel went in all the little spaces between the big rocks. The instructor grinned and said once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was on to him and replied, “Probably not.”

“Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a jar of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks and gravel. Once more he looked at the class and asked, “Is the jar full?” “No” the class roared.

The instructor said, “Good!” and grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. Almost a quart of water fit into the jar. Then he said, “Well, what’s the point?”

One student replied, “Well, there are gaps in your day and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your day.” “No,” the instructor said, “that’s not the point. The point is this: if I hadn’t put the big rocks in first, I would have never gotten any of them in.”

A Framework for Prioritization

In today’s “more is better” worldview, we’re always trying to cram more activities into our day and the big rocks “less is more” paradigm sounds counterintuitive. But what does accomplishing more tasks matter if what we are doing isn’t accomplishing our personal mission or the mission of our organization? Yet, if we put our big rocks into our day first, it’s amazing how many gravel, sand and water activities will also fit in.

So, how do you determine your big rocks?

Think of your big rocks as the specific activities, initiatives, and tasks that are essential for meeting your mission, vision, objectives, and goals. These are “mission critical” in that they are required for success and survival and therefore should be considered a priority. These items are the 20% of what you do that create 80% of your results, make the biggest difference, and generate the highest and most immediate impact. A good rule of thumb is that your big rocks should occupy the majority of your time and resources, and of course, should be pursued first.

Effective planning, daily, weekly, or longer requires creating a framework for prioritization. The key is not to prioritize your schedule but to schedule your priorities.

Are you clear about your priorities, both in terms of definition and weight? The reality is that not all "big rocks" can be the first priority. Being clear about your "Big Rocks" is the first step to applying this prioritization framework.

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