Putting First Things First

By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatPerhaps you’ve heard this story. Imagine you’re sitting in a college class. It’s one of those big classrooms with tiered seating, able to accommodate hundreds of students. The class is assembled in eager expectation; what will the professor do today?

At precisely 8 a.m., he strides in and, without acknowledging the classes’ presence, reaches under the lectern and produces a gallon glass jar. He sits it on a nearby table. Then, he pulls out a box of rocks and sets it next to the jar. Finally, he fixes his gaze on his charges and with their attention sufficiently garnered, he clears his throat, gestures to the rocks, and asks, “Who would like to show us how much you can fit in the jar?”

Unable to contain himself, an eager-to-impress freshman shoots up his hand. With no other volunteers, he is summoned forward. Desiring to make a profound and positive impression on his instructor, Mr. Eager-to-Impress works quickly but carefully, astutely positioning rocks in the jar until it is satiated.

“Is the jar full?” the professor inquires.

“Yes!” the students reply in strong unison.

“Can you fit any more in the jar?” he deadpans.

“No!” is the enthusiastic chorus.

Next, the instructor produces a bag of pebbles. “How about now?”

The students emit a collective gasp; a hush falls over the room. Mr. Eager-to-Impress is in a quandary. Should he cut his losses and remain silent or attempt to salvage his bravado? Somewhat hesitantly, he raises his hand and is again beckoned forward. With greater care and less haste, he places a handful of pebbles at the top and by tapping, shaking, and rotating the jar, they make their way to fill the gaps below. Satisfied he has done his best, with hopeful confidence he returns to his chair.

“Is the jar full?” the educator again inquires.

“Um, yes,” is the students’ cautious reply.

“Can you fit any more in the jar?” he questions.

“No,” they guardedly answer.

Next, the instructor brings out a pail of sand. Many students begin to smile.

“How about now?”

Eager-to-Impress is not so eager any more, but he feels his fate has been decided. Without being asked, he slinks back to the table and using the same technique, filters the fine sand through the courser maze of rocks and pebbles. Red-faced, he sits down, anxious for class to end.

The teacher gleefully asks, “Is the jar full now?”

No one will venture a response. Whatever they might say, they fear it would be wrong; plus, no one wants to stand out like Eager-to-Impress.

The professor ignores their silence, “Can you fit any more in the jar?” he questions.

More silence ensues.

With practiced timing, the learners are left to squirm in the hush of the moment. Without a word, the teacher reaches under the podium and brings forth a pitcher of water. Some students groan; others smile.

Unable to contain himself, the skillful educator grins. “How about now?” he inquires.

He doesn’t ask for volunteers and none would be forthcoming anyway. Slowly he begins pouring the water into the jar. Gradually, it permeates every crack and crevice. He fills it to the top and then adds a bit more to overflow the jar. There is no doubt that the jar is now full.

“What can we learn from this?” is his final query.

Eager-to-Impress, wanting to salvage something from this debacle, summons his courage and hesitantly avers, “It means that no matter how much you’ve got goin’ on, you can always fit more in!”

“No,” the professor bellows, pounding his fist on the table for emphasis. “It means that unless you take care of the big things first, they will never get done!”

I have heard several variations of this narrative. Since I have not been unable to track down the source of this tale or its author, I share my version of it, with thanks to an anonymous writer or educator for a valuable lesson shared.

I can confidently state that I am quite adept at handling the pebbles and sand in my life, topping it off with an abundant supply of water to make things seem complete. However, I’ve discovered that it requires forethought and intentionality for me to handle the rocks, those big and important things. I find that without careful planning and deliberate action, the big stuff gets put off until tomorrow. It becomes all too easy to go from day to day, week to week, month to month, and even year to year, attending only to life’s minutia, without addressing its priorities.

Everyone is busy; it’s endemic. We are busy at work and leave to be busy at home; we are busy in rest and recreation and busier still on vacation, needing to go back to work to rest up. All too often, our busyness distracts us from what is important, from what really matters, those things that could truly make a difference. I’ve pondered my own busyness and am working towards a cure.

Time Management doesn’t usually bring relief or reduce stress, it just squeezes more into an already full day. Turn time management on its head, using it to control how we spend our time, so that we do less.

Multitasking is not really doing two things at once; it is merely quickly switching back and forth. Computers do this well; the human mind is not as adept. For us people, multitasking is actually inefficient and counter-productive.

Keep a Time Log to fully comprehend what you do and how long you spend (or waste) on it; the results will likely shock you.

Just Say No to some things – even good things – in order to protect yourself from over-committing and therefore being too busy to do anything well.

Set Limits to how much you work, otherwise you will end up working as much as you are physically and mentally able, leaving no significant time for anything else.

Know Yourself: My tendency is to handle the pebbles and sand at the beginning of my day and then attend to the rocks in the afternoon – if there is time. This is not wise, as my time of greatest focus and peak energy is in the morning. Ironically, I was handling trivial stuff at my peak, while reserving the important tasks for my low point. I’ve noted a similar cycle throughout the week and another that is seasonal. It takes a concerted, ongoing effort, but I strive to prioritize key tasks for times of peak energy, while delegating lesser activities to lulls in the day.

Do First Things First: Once you’ve taken steps to resume control over life’s activities, there is then time to attend to the big things. Without the cumulative pressures of countless trivial concerns, there is the freedom to focus on the important, the life-altering, and the significant, removing us from the rut that all too easily goes from day to day, week to week, month to month, and even year to year – all without notable advancement.

Please join me today in putting first things first.

Peter DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From theĀ February/March 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]