Time Management, Part II

I have horrible time management skills.

Part of the reason is that I take on a lot of projects.

Part of the reason is that I’m easily distra…ooh, shiny!

And part of the reason is that I’m a terrible procrastinator.   On second thought, that’s not quite true.  I’m actually a very good procrastinator.  It’s a skill I’ve built up quite well.

Stephen Covey tells a story–one I’ve always heard applied to personal finance–called The Big Rocks of Life.

One day this expert was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration I’m sure those students will never forget. After I share it with you, you’ll never forget it either.

As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was onto him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”

“No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!”

“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

The original point to the story is just as relevant as the personal finance lessons associated with it.   If you let your life fill up with the little crap that doesn’t matter, you won’t have time for the important things.

At work, I have 4-5 major projects I’m working on.  Some of these are behind schedule.   I get interrupted sometimes twenty times per day.   Each one of those interruptions kills my concentration; it wrecks my groove.   By the time I’m back on track, 20 minutes have passed and I’m getting interrupted again.

No wonder I don’t seem to get anything done.

If I close my door and ignore my email, the little rocks usually don’t fill up my day, allowing me to concentrate on the high-value projects.   That’s not always possible, and my coworkers get upset when I throw rocks at them for interrupting me, but it does help me get things done.

Now, I just need to focus on the big things and let the little rocks slide.  No twitter, no internet forums, no coworker interruptions.  Then we’ll see how productive I can be.

What are your “little rocks”?  How do you avoid getting bogged down?

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  • 12 comments

    Comments

    1. My “little rocks” are more along the lines of what I choose to do instead of what I actually WANT to accomplish. For example, I might go watch a movie instead of writing my blog posts. Then I “don’t have time” to get ahead instead of just staying even.

    2. I a a list guy! I put things on a list and work my list. I get a great feeling by crossing things off and accomplish much more this way.

    3. I try to spend a few minutes a day on my to-do list, figuring out what’s most important or urgent. Then, try to get the day started by working on those things.

      Plus, I think about how good it will feel to get those important things done, to have the stress removed. That helps motivate me to stay on track and spend endless time on low value things. I’m not always great at it, and it’s something that’s a work in progress for me. But, I’m getting there.

    4. I’ve noticed that I get distracted a little too often. Too much social media.

      I have to be disciplined with the time I have and I’ve learned to utilize the minutes in-between appointments and major tasks.

      Even if I have 3 minutes until a meeting begins, I will use that time to answer an email (or two).

      It’s also important to delegate and have people learn to handle things on their own. I love to create a ‘to-do’ list each night before I leave work and that helps me focus the next day. If somebody needs help with something, I ask them if it can wait…if it can’t then I have to bump my least important ‘to-do’ for that day.

    5. This is not nearly as effective as the version of teacher in front of his students with a large glass jar. Something along the lines of: “the rocks are the important things in live, you family, your health,your friends. The pebbles are less important things like, your job, the house you live in, where you live,etc. The sand is all the other stuff which is really inconsequential in life. At the end the teacher asks if the jar is full, all say yes. Then he brings out 2 cans of beer, LOL,then a student asks what is the beer for? Just when you think Your life is full, there is always room for a couple of beers. The point is: if you put the sand and pebbles in first you won’t have room for the important things in life.

    6. I had never heard that story before. That was awesome. I have never thought of it like that before. That really put it in perspective. I know that I have horrible time management skills as well thanks to procrastination and thinking that multi-tasking is actually worthwhile (it’s not!).

    7. That is a great story. It relates a bit to the 80/20 rule. Put your effort in first for the big wins before wasting your time on the little stuff.

    8. I make a list but it usually gets turned upside down throughout the day. Learning to prioritize whats important as well as leaving time for staff and yourself (work and perosnal) is a skill and even after 25 yrs of working I still struggle with it sometimes. My main distrations are email and cellphone calls – I just cant seem to ignore them

    9. I love that story. I’ve heard it before told how the big rocks are things like your family, job, health etc. The things that are most important to you. And then on down from there medium sized things like having a nice house. Then smaller things like the car you drive (I can’t think of a good example) and then finally all the details of life like your favorite tv show or what cell phone you have. All the stuff small talk is made of.

    10. Good story! I try to make lists, but they usually end up under a pile of other lists, the mail and notes I leave myself throughout the day. So instead I try to focus on completing 2-3 projects per day, which helps to simply things. It works most of the time.

    11. Andrew @ 101 Centavos says:

      Taking care of little things (sand & gravel) first, before they morph into bigger problems, is always advisable. Interruptions are killer for a big projects. I sometimes go *hide* somewhere just to get an uninterrupted stretch of time.

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