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Matt Douglas, Founder and CEO of Punchbowl.com

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Rocks, Pebbles, Sand

jar of rocksThere is an old story about a teacher who shows his class a glass jar. The teacher asks the class: “If I fill this jar with 3 large rocks, will it be full?” The class looks at the large rocks and comes to the conclusion that the rocks will indeed fill the jar.

So the teacher takes the three large rocks and places them in the jar. Then he takes out a large box full of pebbles. Once again, he asks the class: “If I add all of the pebbles to the jar, will it be full?” The class looks at the pebbles and concludes that the jar will be indeed be full once the pebbles are added. “You can’t fool us again,” they all say.

Image from CouchsurfingCEO

So the teachers takes the pebbles and dumps them into the glass jar. They slide easily around the three large rocks. Then he takes out a a bag of sand. Once again, he asks the class: “If I add this sand to the jar, will it be full?” Chagrined, the class laments. Now they can see the teacher still has room for the sand.

Satisfied, the teacher once again asks the class: “Now that I’ve added the three rocks, the pebbles, and the sand, is the jar full?” Looking at the jar filled to the brim, the class agrees that the jar is now full. “There’s no room for anything else in the jar,” says the class.

So the teacher takes out a cup of water, and pours it right into the glass jar. The water easily falls into the jar down between the rocks, pebbles, and sand. “Now it’s full,” says the teacher.

I think about this story often as I figure out my own capacity for handling tasks:

•  Rocks: At any one time, I can only handle three major tasks at once. I try to structure my day so that I make progress on these three major tasks. I would argue that for most people, three is the right number of major tasks they can handle at any one time.

•  Pebbles: As I look at my inbox, there are many other items that need my attention. I try to get to these as I have time, but the rocks always take precedence.

•  Sand: These are the more organic things I handle everyday, in the process of doing something else. For me, this is the equivalent of reading an email while I’m talking on the phone.

And just when I think that I can’t possibly handle anything else, I find a way. That’s the water. As my daughter says, “Water, water, everywhere.”

This story of rocks, pebbles, and sand is a great framework for prioritizing your tasks. As a start-up, time is your most precious asset. What are the three rocks that you’re working on now? What else do you still have time to do today?

Photo credit: zestnzen.wordpress.com/category/work-life-balance-2/


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©2019 Matt Douglas