Why rocks, pebbles, sand is a productivity trap

Doing the big stuff first can set you up for failure; here's how you should structure your day instead

3 minute read

There’s a well-known video (opens new window) about a professor who teaches his class a life lesson by dropping rocks, pebbles and sand into a jar in that order.

The idea is that by considering aspects of your life of particular importance and priority, you’ll fit it all in, in a way that will bring you fulfilment and happiness.

It’s a lovely analogy, but unfortunately doesn’t map so well to the average working day.

However, if you turn the theory on its head, you can get some value out of it.

How the story explains it

The rocks are meaningful things in life, like health, family and relationships, and should be put in first (we’re told if you put them in last, there’ll be no room for them at the end).

The pebbles are the other things that matter such as work, or school, and these should fill the gaps between the meaningful things.

The sand is everything else, the so-called small stuff, and should only be added at the end once you’ve taken care of the important things.

What happens in real life

For most hardworking folks (or maybe just me!) the rocks end up being work and on an average day, they’re gonna go in first.

The problem is that work can be all-consuming, and because humans are poor at multi-tasking you end up working every hour of the day (and possibly evening) and everything else slips.

At the end of the week or month, you look back and realise you never got to the pebbles (getting some exercise) or sand (fixing that shelf) and it’s costing you in satisfaction, health and happiness.

Turning the idea on its head

Rather than letting work swallow-up your days, each morning, commit to time-boxing a few small and medium non-work tasks first. Begin with 10 - 20 minutes of trivial to-dos; the kind which take only minutes, but would otherwise build up and drag you down.

Spend the next hour on medium tasks you can complete within the hour or over a few days; this is your chance to chip away on a variety of personal and professional goals.

After 11 am or so, you are free to disappear down the rabbit hole of chunky work tasks that will swallow your time and attention for the rest of the day!

Finally, the gaps; those are the breaks you need to take so you don’t burn out.

When you look back at your week you’ll have accomplished tasks in all areas of your life, and be happier and more organised for it 😃


Do you like to be productive?

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