Managing Your Time Management Strategy

  • by

Contributed by: Jennifer Hunt, MD, MEd

Have you ever heard the old story of the rocks, pebbles and sand? 

A philosophy professor once stood before his class with a large empty jar. He filled the jar with large rocks and asked his students if the jar was full. The students said yes, the jar is full. He then added some small pebbles to the jar and asked, “Is the jar full now?” The students agreed that the jar was finally full. The professor then poured some sand into the jar and asked again. The students then decided again that the jar was finally full. The professor went on to explain that the jar signifies one’s life. 

A Very Old Story

In this analogy, the rocks represent meaningful things that give you purpose. The pebbles are also important, but less meaningful to you. The sand is filler, fluff, the stuff that you might have to do but don’t really want to do.  In the model, the common teaching suggests the jar is a metaphor for time.   You should fill up your “jar,” or your time, with the rocks first.  After the jar is filled with rocks, you can pour in the pebbles and then fill in the little spaces with the sand, which represents the more mundane and smaller tasks that you might prefer to skip over.  In the end, your time is fully and well utilized and maximally deployed.  Or as we might say, “first things first.” 

For our purposes, however,  the tale creates an idealized version of time management that allows us to prioritize in such a manner as to completely and thoroughly fill every second of our time to meet maximal productivity.  And using it avoids what an uncle of mine used to call, “Majoring on the minors” or wasting time on details rather than the big picture.  The problem is, at least in healthcare, that our time is rarely ever our own to spend as we wish.  It is rarely up to me and me alone how to deploy my time, let alone decide what is important and meaningful to me.  So, we need to adapt the model just a little bit to be practical and applicable to every day for typical busy, working adults.   

With a simple tweak, we can use the rocks, pebbles and sand in our everyday work. 

Redefined Rocks: 

I often have  to define my rocks as non-negotiable items that must be done first, maybe even today.  These may be items with deadlines, or items that take a commitment of a block of time, or items that someone else is counting on from you.  A rock you have chosen might be highly meaningful, but one chosen for you might be mundane.  Either way, since rocks usually can’t be squeezed into small time spaces, tucked into the last minute, left to chance for completion, or postponed until tomorrow,  they need to get scheduled and blocked on our calendars. So, as we start our days, we should look at our to-do lists and identify our rocks, the tasks we need to tackle  today.

Redefined Pebbles:

The pebbles in the original story are less meaningful.  Pebbles are simply things that can fit into smaller time spaces.  Pebbles  don’t have urgent deadlines and are essentially negotiable.   Pebbles fit into the spaces between rocks. These are nice-to-haves not need-to-haves for today.  One caveat:   pebbles today can become rocks tomorrow or later in the week. So, they can’t be entirely ignored and they can’t be avoided, they just need to take the backseat to the rocks. 

Redefined Sand:

In the original model, the sand represents the least meaningful items. In our time management model, the sand is the tiny stuff, the easy stuff, the quick and mundane things you might be able to do on your smartphone while waiting for an elevator.  I keep a running list of these sand items so I can grab a few minutes between meetings and check off a couple of things. Tapping into your sand list can be satisfying and give you motivation, and it can also serve as a way to embed a little“downtime” as you transition between rocks or even intense pebbles.

The following is an example that will probably resonate with almost any working adult: Email inbox

Managing my email inbox is usually a pebble for me.  I fit it in the spaces between my rocks. Sometimes it is also sand, when I try to do a little clean-up while waiting for the elevator.  But, occasionally, I get a message that says my inbox is over the limit. Suddenly, that task escalates to a rock, because if I don’t clean it out, I will stop being able to send or receive emails. 

If you prefer to listen to this blog, click below for the blogcast.