Making time

In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey shares a parable that has since become widely popular:

A teacher shows up to class with big rocks, pebbles, a bag of sand, and a glass jar and asks his students if everything can fit into the jar.

At first the students foolishly try to put the pebbles and the sand in first, only to realize that the big rocks do not fit.

The teacher conveniently comes to the rescue with a solution, demonstrating that if you put the big rocks in first, the pebbles and sand will nestle into the remaining space.

The apparent moral of the story is that the jar is a metaphor for life. The rocks, pebbles, and sand are metaphors for various things that might matter to us. And if we prioritize the most important things first (the big rocks), everything else will magically fit.

Oliver Burkeman, in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, offers a more realistic appraisal of this tale:

“[The story is] a lie…[the teacher] has rigged his demonstration by bringing only a few big rocks into the classroom, knowing they’ll all fit into the jar. The real problem of time management today, though, isn’t that we’re bad at prioritizing the big rocks. It’s that there are too many big rocks — and most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar. The critical question isn’t how to differentiate between activities that matter and those that don’t, but what to do when far too many things feel at least somewhat important and therefore arguably qualify as big rocks.”

In the face of too many things that “feel at least somewhat important” in life, merely rearranging them will bring you no closer to making time for them.

Instead, you have to do a rather hard thing — at least at first — which is to say “no” to things you fully recognize matter… just not as much.

It’s an inconvenient truth, perhaps. But a practical one that will allow you to do the thing that many often try but fail to do, which is to finally make time for important things that you’ve been deferring (perhaps multiple times) into the future.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
William Liao

William Liao


Taiwanese American, daily blogger of ideas about impactful work in service of others, photographer (