The Jar of Life: How Rocks, Pebbles and Sand Can Help You Take Control of Your Time

The Jar of Life - How Rocks, Pebbles and Sand Can Help You Take Control of Your Time

It’s very easy to live minute by minute, day by day. But are you doing what you really want to do?

You still haven’t started your yoga lessons. You wanted to learn Spanish. You did order the book, opened it once and stopped there. You wanted to volunteer but you never, ever get enough time for you and your family, let alone others…

Do you know the story about filling up a jar with rocks (well, big stones), pebbles (small stones) and sand?

What do you start with in order to fit them all in?

If you start with the sand – these thousands of little things you know you have to do – the small stones might fit in but the big stones never will.

The Jar of Life Story

There are many versions of this story floating around but this variation seems to be the most widely used (and is more than sufficient to clarify the point of the exercise):

A professor sets a glass jar on the table. He silently places 2-inch rocks in the jar until no more can fit. He asks his audience if the jar is full and they agree it is. He says, “Really?” and pulls out a pile of small pebbles, adding them to the jar, shaking it slightly until they fill the spaces between the rocks. He asks again, “Is the jar full?” They agree. He then adds some sand to the jar, filling the space between the pebbles and asks the question again. This time, the class hesitates, some feeling that the jar is obviously full, but others are wary of another trick. The professor then grabs a pitcher of water and fills the jar to the brim, saying, “If this jar is your life, what does this experiment show you?” One of the audience answers “No matter how busy you think you are, you can always take on more.” “That is one view,” replies the professor, then says “The rocks represent the BIG things in your life – what you will value at the end of your life – your family, your partner, your health, fulfilling your hopes and dreams. The pebbles are the other things in your life that give it meaning, like your job, your house, your hobbies, your friendships. The sand and water represent the ‘small stuff’ that fills our time, like watching TV or running errands.” Looking out at the class again, he asks, “Can you see what would happen if I started with the sand or the pebbles?”

You get the idea.

In terms of how this relates to your life and priorities, then it’s about taking the time to think things through from time to time and put the right things first (the rocks & pebbles) before life (the smaller things that crop up and take away your time) gets in the way. This can be difficult and can require quite a bit of will-power depending upon the real-life circumstances in question.

How To Use This To Take Control of Your Time

With this in mind, let’s look at a series of steps for ‘filling your jar’ the right way:

Step 1 – Take a few minutes and list your priorities (your rocks)

These are the things that are important to you and you want to make time for.

It may be easier the first time you do this exercise to focus on a specific time period (say, a week) and think of just 3 ‘rocks’ that you want to make time for in that time period.

Later as you become more familiar with the concept and exercise you can use this thinking in a more conceptual, more generic way or prioritize more or less ‘rocks’ over different time periods to suit your needs.

Step 2 – Make the time for the priorities (‘rocks’) you have identified

I’m sure you have other commitments, even if it’s only work. But you should not forget yourself. You need to make the time for what matters to you.

Do not start by saying: ‘I don’t have the time‘. Instead, ask yourself: ‘What can I do to make the time?

When you ask yourself a question instead of making a statement, something very interesting and powerful happens: Your subconcious mind will help you find ways to answer that question and access resources you didn’t realise were there. By asking yourself how you can do things rather than concluding you can’t, you are opening your mind and spirit instead of closing doors. Basically, saying “I can’t” shuts down the brain. No more work needed, nothing more to discuss. On the other hand, saying “How can I…?” opens up the brain and forces it to find answers and new possibilities – and the best part about it is that the more you do this, the easier you will find the answers!

So, be positive and take action in order to make time for what matters to you.

Take a good look at what you’re currently doing and make sure you do not over-promise. For example, do you need to work late every day? Could you finish earlier one evening so you can start learning Spanish? Choose the evening, book the course, make it known to your colleagues. No meeting later than 4pm on that day so you can finish on time and go to your course. Manage their expectations and set some boundaries according to what you want to achieve and have decided in terms of your priorities.

Half the battle here is setting out what your priorities are (which you have already done) – once you have done that and commit to these, it’s much easier to make time for what you have identified and committed to than finding time for something that you haven’t really committed to as a priority and have always told yourself you don’t have time for.

Step 3 – Take a calendar. Book them in.

It’s now time to take action.

Book that course you want to take. Write it down in your diary. If you wanted to volunteer, contact the organisation you want to help. How much time do they need from you, when? Decide what you can do and when. Write it down.

Step 4 – Set-up a system to keep going.

What matters now is to keep going.

Don’t fall back into the ‘I don’t have the time‘ trap again.

Making your activities regular will help with setting yours and others’ expectations and keeping you going.
If it’s an activity whether at home or outside that does not require regular times, make it regular. Every Thursday evening, you will book a course and play badminton with your friends. If you want to spend more quality time with your children, find a regular activity you could practice with them. If you want to spend more quality time with your partner, decide you’ll take an evening out every first Friday of each month or whatever suits you but make it regular.

Step 5 – Be realistic and do not over-promise your time.

Don’t try and fit absolutely everything in. You do need quiet times too.
Find a balance that works for you and the people you love.

Step 6 – Enjoy it fully.

Now that you have found more time in your life and that you enjoy it the way you really want to, make the best use of it. Don’t go through it all at super speed just to tick boxes. Take the time to really enjoy each moment (read our Mindfulness article to know just how to do it).

Final Thought – The Ultimate Goal of This Exercise

The idea is that ultimately this kind of prioritisation becomes a habit and something you do more naturally to get more from your time, achieving the things you want to achieve sooner whilst still finding time to fit in things that would otherwise get in the way (i.e. filling your jar efficiently with the rocks first and the sand last).


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