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 expectation; what will the prof 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 students. Garnering their attention, he clears his throat, gestures to the rocks, and asks, “Who would like to show us how much you can fit in?”
Unable to contain himself, an eager-to-impress freshman shoots up his hand. Desiring to make an impression, Mr. Eager-to-Impress carefully places rocks in the jar.
“Is the jar full?” The professor asks.
“Yes!” the students reply in unison.
“Can you fit any more in?”
Then the instructor produces a bag of pebbles. The students gasp; a hush falls over the room. Mr. Eager-to-Impress is in a quandary. Should he cut his losses and keep quiet or attempt to salvage his bravado. Hesitantly he raises his hand and then comes forward. With greater care, he places a handful of pebbles at the top and by tapping, shaking, and rotating the jar, they make their way to the gaps below. Satisfied with the results, he returns to his chair hoping for the best.
“Is the jar full, now?”
“Um, yes,” the students answer.
“Can you fit any more in?”
“No.” Their answer is guarded.
Next the instructor brings out a pail of sand. Many students smile. “How about now?” Eager-to-Impress is not so eager anymore, but feels his fate is already decided. Without being asked, he slinks back to the table and using the same technique, filters the 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 ventures 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?” More silence.
With practiced timing, the learners squirm in the hush of the moment. Without saying a word, the teacher reaches under the podium and brings forth a pitcher of water. Some students groan; others laugh. Unable to contain himself, the educator grins. “How about now?”
Slowly he pours the water into the jar, permeating every crevice. He fills it to the top and then overflows it. There’s no doubt whether or not the jar is full.
“What can we learn from this?”
Eager-to-Impress, wanting to salvage something from this debacle, summons his courage and hesitantly says, “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. “It means that unless you do the big things first, they’ll never get done!”
I’ve heard several variations of this story. Since I don’t know who wrote it, I share my version with a nod to “Anonymous.”
I’m adept at handling the pebbles and sand in my life, topping it off with an abundant supply of water to make things seem full. However, I must be intentional to handle the rocks, those important tasks. Without deliberate action, I put off the big stuff until tomorrow, attending to life’s minutia, without tackling its priorities.
It’s an epidemic; everyone is busy. We’re busy at work and leave to be busy at home; we’re busy in recreation and busier still on vacation, needing to return to work to rest. Our busyness distracts us from what’s 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:
1) Time Management: The thrust of time management is controlling how we spend our time to allow time to do more. This doesn’t bring relief, it just means we’re squeezing 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.
2) Multitasking: When I multitask, I’m not really doing two things at once, but merely quickly switching back and forth. I fear my pursuit of multitasking has only served to make me ADD! Not only is multitasking counter-productive, but there’s also evidence it messes up our brain.
3) Keep a Time Log: I used to unintentionally irritate my managers by periodically asking them to keep a time log for a week; I’d do it too. They hated it and so did I, but the results were instructive.
Let’s look at some easy timewasters. How much TV do you watch a day? How much time do you spend online? This amounts to hours that could be put to a different use, attending to the big things, not squandered in passive activities of no real consequence. While we all need to relax, if we weren’t so perpetually busy, we wouldn’t need so much time to escape.
4) Just Say No: We tell our kids to say “no” to certain behaviors and would do well to heed our advice. Sometimes it’s wise to say “no” to good things in order to protect ourselves from over-committing and ending up too busy to do anything well.
5) Set Limits: My tolerance for work is about 50 to 55 hours a week. If things balloon beyond that, out of self-preservation I cut back until I again have a tolerable schedule. If I was self-policing to a 55-hour workweek, I theorized I could learn to limit myself to 45. It took some time, but I was able to do it. In looking at my output and quality during those 45-hour workweeks, I saw nothing that suffered. I was also more relaxed, less stressed, and had more free time.
6) Know Yourself: My tendency is to handle the pebbles and sand at the beginning of my day and attend to the rocks in the afternoon – if there’s time. This isn’t 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 concerted effort, but I strive to prioritize key tasks for peak times while delegating lesser activities to my lower energy moments.
7) Then Do the Big Things: Once we take steps to control life’s activities, we can attend to the big things. Without the pressures of trivial concerns, there’s 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 year to year—all without noticeable advancement.