- Time management is difficult to master, but is critical for productivity.
- One executive coach has a helpful analogy involving rocks, pebbles, and sand that can drive home the point of effective time management.
- The takeaway: By taking time to address our most important goals, the smaller items on our to-do list will fall into place around them.
Time management is one of the most difficult things to master at work, whether you’re an intern or a CEO.
Cohn said when first-time CEOs ask her for advice on time management, she responds with an analogy involving, rocks, pebbles, and sand. And it’s a helpful piece of advice for anyone who struggles to find enough time in the day to get things done.
Here’s how it goes: A professor presents a class with a gallon-size glass jar he says he’s trying to fill up. He brings out a platter of large, fist-sized rocks and dumps them into the jar until they reach the top.
He asks the class if the jar is full, to which they naturally reply, yes.
A bonus just for you: Click here to claim 30 days of access to Business Insider PRIME
Then, the professor brings out a bowl of pebbles, and proceeds to pour them into the jar. He shakes the jar until the pebbles settle in all the spaces between the big rocks. He asks again if the jar is now full, to which the class responds yes.
Lastly, the professor reveals a bucket of sand, which he pours into the jar until every nook and cranny is occupied. The jar finally appears full – until the professor pours a bottle of water into the jar.
“Now it’s full,” he says, before revealing the moral of the story: “If we had put the sand in first, would there have been any room for the big rocks?”
It’s an old story that was popularised in part by speaker and management expert Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
As Cohn explains, each of the materials in the story represents tasks of varying importance in your workday: The big rocks are your major goals and strategic initiatives, the pebbles are shorter-term goals of lesser importance, and the sand is minor tasks that aren’t essential to your success. Meanwhile, the water is the distractions that prevent you from getting any work done at all.
Cohn said that by taking time to identify what your “big rocks” are, the smaller tasks will fall into place around them, like the rocks in the analogy. On the flip side, you can easily get sidetracked by email chains or choosing the perfect font for a report – the pebbles and sand – if you lose sight of your overarching objectives.
“You can’t work on those if you’re inundated by the day-to-day little minutiae of the day,” she told Business Insider. “So when you’re looking at your week, it’s really helpful to figure out, when am I going to block out a couple hours, maybe two or three times a week, to really do that reflection, to have a sacred time that you can work around?”
The big rocks are the hardest to conceptualize, as they are often abstract and wide in scope, like the mission of a company or its yearlong growth goals. A common trap executives fall into, Cohn said, is focusing so hard on completing smaller tasks that they put off the larger, more consequential ones that would ultimately improve the business and make their lives easier.
“Let’s say the head of marketing is doing all the marketing presentations and all the work himself,” Cohn said. “Why? Because he hasn’t stopped and done the big rock of hiring a really great director to do all the work.”
“You will never get out of that mode if you don’t sit back and say, ‘I’ve got to do the important work here.'”
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.