By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Perhaps 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 exactly 8 o’clock, 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.
Then 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 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 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 picture of water. Some students groan; others smile. Unable to contain himself, the skillful educator grins. “How about now?” He asks? 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 as to whether or not the jar is 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 proclaims, “It means that no matter how busy you are, 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 a tip of my hat to “Anonymous,” grateful for the 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 ever tackling its priorities.
This seems to be an epidemic; everyone is busy. 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, from those things that could truly make a difference. I’ve pondered my own busyness and am working towards my cure.
Time Management: The traditional thrust of time management is controlling how we spend our time so as to allow time to do more. This doesn’t bring relief or reduce stress, it just means that we are squeezing more into an already full day. Turn time management on its head, using it control how we spend out time, so that we do less. This is my first prescription against busyness.
Multitasking: When I multitask, I am not really doing two things at once, but merely quickly switching back and forth. I fear that my pursuit of multitasking has only served to make me ADD! In last month’s issue, there was an excellent article by Dr. Rosanne D’Ausilio about the effects of multitasking. Not only is multitasking inefficient and counter-productive, it can also mess up our brain. This certainly gives one pause.
Keep a Time Log: Before I went solo and when I had employees, I used to unintentionally irritate my managers by periodically asking them to keep a time log for a week; I would do it too. They hated it and so did I, but the results were instructive. You may elect to keep a time log, too, or merely consider how you spend your time. Let’s look at some easy categories. How much TV do you watch a day? The average is four hours! How much time do you spend on the Internet? Again the average hovers around four hours! It makes me wonder, are people multitasking, watching TV and surfing the Web at the same time? All this amounts to a lot of time that could likely be put to better use, attending to the big things, not squandered in passive activities of no real consequence. One may argue that this down time is “needed” to relax, but I submit that if we weren’t so perpetually busy, we wouldn’t need so much time to escape.
Just Say No: We tell our kids to say “no” to certain behaviors and could do well to heed that advice. Negative behaviors range in severity from, say, occasional overeating to addictive substance abuse. These should be easy to spot and stop, but it’s not always done. Other behaviors are neutral or even positive, but still may be inadvisable. Sometimes its prudent to say “no” to some good things in order to protect ourselves from over-committing and ending up too busy to do anything well.
Set Limits: I’ve learned that my tolerance for work is about 50 to 55 hours a week. If things balloon beyond that, I find that out of self-preservation I cut back until I again have a tolerable schedule. If I was self-policing to a 55 hour work week, I theorized I could learn to limit myself to 45 hours. It took some time, but I was able to do it. In looking back at my output and quality during those 45 hour work weeks, I can see nothing that suffered or was left undone. I was also more relaxed, less stressed, and had more free time. Unfortunately, maintaining that schedule took effort and I soon fell back into the 55 hour work week habit. Once again I am working to reclaim those lost 10 hours a week.
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 for me, 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 seasonally affected. It takes a concerted, ongoing effort, but I strive to prioritize key tasks for peak times, while delegating lesser activities to my off moments.
Now We Can Do the Big 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 pushing in, 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.
Above all, it is imperative to guard against getting so busy dealing with life that we forget to live it.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.
[From Connection Magazine – March 2006]