Manage your time like a boss

You have a large, wide-mouthed jar in front of you. You also have some water, some sand, a bunch of pebbles, and several large rocks. What’s the best approach to filling the jar if you want to fit in as much as possible? You could start with the water and the sand, but if you do you’ll struggle to get many pebbles in, and you won’t get any big rocks in. Instead, you should start with the largest items first: place your big rocks into the jar; fill the gaps with pebbles; pour sand over the top and then, when it seems like the jar is completely full, add water.

Managing your time with big rocks

For those who struggle to get around to many things that they consider important, this can be a good analogy for time management. (It’s taken from Stephen Covey’s First Things First, pp.88-89, but Covey himself borrowed the analogy from an unnamed seminar instructor.)

What are your priorities? Schedule the biggest ones in first – otherwise you’ll never make time for them.

Identifying your priorities

How can you pinpoint those important priorities that you aren’t making enough time for? Covey recommends another useful tool, the Eisenhower Matrix (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit 3):

Urgent Not urgent
Important Quadrant 1:
Crises, problems
Quadrant 2:
Values, priorities
Not important Quadrant 3:
Pressing matters, demands
Quadrant 4:
Trivia, minutiae


(For those wondering, it’s called the “Eisenhower Matrix” because the concept was developed by Dwight D. Eisenhower – yep, the 34th-president-of-the-USA Eisenhower – but the matrix was definitely popularised by Covey’s famous 7 Habits.)

If you don’t actively prioritise your time, you end up spending too much time in the “urgent” column. The items that fall into Quadrant 2, those are your “big rocks”: the things you should schedule in to your week first. Scheduling these things at the start of the week (or at the end of the previous week) gives you a longer view. Once you’re in the day-to-day thick of things it’s too easy to become reactive, to focus on urgent matters only.

Well-being is a big rock

If you’re concerned that prioritising in advance will prevent you from engaging in activities of enjoyment and self-care, think again: we actually find it “easier to choose things that we know are good for our own well-being” (Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, p.101, my emphasis) when we choose in advance. This is because when we plan in advance, we think about the desirability of our plans. When we plan on the day, we think mostly about logistics: all those bits of pebbles and sand that get in the way of fitting in the big rocks.

Planning in advance is not just a way to make sure big work projects get done on time, it’s also a way to make sure that you stop and smell the roses, take some time for your personal projects, get that massage.

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