Rocks, Pebbles, Sand: A Story-bite about the Important Things in Life

Rocks in Jar

Fill Your Life Jar with the Big Rocks

A teacher walks into a classroom and sets a glass jar on the table. He silently places 2-inch rocks in the jar until no more can fit. He asks the class if the jar is full and they agree it is. He says, “Really,” and pulls out a pile of small pebbles, adding them to the jar, shaking it slightly until they fill the spaces between the rocks. He asks again, “Is the jar full?” They agree. So next, he adds a scoop of sand to the jar, filling the space between the pebbles and asks the question again. This time, the class is divided, some feeling that the jar is obviously full, but others are wary of another trick. So he grabs a pitcher of water and fills the jar to the brim, saying, “If this jar is your life, what does this experiment show you?” A bold student replies, “No matter how busy you think you are, you can always take on more.” “That is one view,” he replies. Then he looks out at the class making eye contact with everyone, “The rocks represent the BIG things in your life – what you will value at the end of your life – your family, your partner, your health, fulfilling your hopes and dreams. The pebbles are the other things in your life that give it meaning, like your job, your house, your hobbies, your friendships. The sand and water represent the ‘small stuff’ that fills our time, like watching TV or running errands.” Looking out at the class again, he asks, “Can you see what would happen if I started with the sand or the pebbles?”

No matter how many times I hear this popular story, which is widely circulated and told in many ways, I am reminded about what is important in my life and work:  if I solve the big issues first, the small ones will fall into place, but the reverse is not the case.

I have found myself working with teams who focus on the pebbles. They stay very busy, counting tactical accomplishments as successes. But at the end of the day, their work begs the question: “Despite all this activity, what does it mean?” I’ve also fallen prey to petty distractions, like sand, that creep into the extra spaces of my life and paralyze me from moving forward. Some sand helps to cement our boulders, but if we let too much fill our jars, we have no room for the BIG things. So what does this have to do with health and innovation? EVERYTHING!

As health counselors/coaches, we can share this story to help our clients focus on the most important diet, exercise, and life issues to tackle. Eliminating gluten may not help if their issue is really calorie management. Or counting calories won’t work if binge eating is an outlet for unresolved emotional issues. Focusing their attention and energy on the big issues is critical, even if it means that we need to refer them to another specialist who is better equipped to deal with their “big rocks.”

Innovation is all about placing bets. But many innovation teams get paralyzed trying to move the BIG, unwieldy rocks and instead get caught up moving piles of pebbles from one jar to another. Injecting the discipline of asking the “rock, pebbles, sand” question early and often can help teams stay focused on the BIG opportunities. Just because the BIG rocks are heavy, we shouldn’t turn our attention to pebbles and sand.

 

23 Comments

  1. EM on October 10, 2018 at 9:57 pm

    This story was so very well written, it totally provides an insight to have really is structured. It is also a wakeup call to how many distractions “sand” really take up out daily lives. We should be focusing on our family and health. However most of us seem to prioritize other things in this day and age.

  2. […] At least that’s how they start. What erodes this? I think the sand in the jar story is one explanation. Teachers are constantly trying to balance being a teacher and being a person. And teaching is […]

  3. […] probably familiar with the story for a jar that represents the time available in your life. You fill the jar with rocks, pebbles, and sand […]

  4. The Perfectionist – moth and soul on August 18, 2017 at 1:42 am

    […] I attended a writer’s session where Former Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly shared a story on Rocks, Pebbles, Sand: A Story-bite about the Important Things in Life. […]

  5. […] Here we focus on the top 3-5 priorities or “rocks”. The term is borrowed from a fable about the most important things in life. If you are to fill a bucket with rocks, pebbles and sand, don’t put the sand in first as there […]

  6. […] remember the advice in the classic analogy of the rocks, pebbles, and sand—start your plan with your top priorities, and you will have room for them. When planning your […]

    • EM on October 10, 2018 at 9:59 pm

      This is advice you can use for the rest of your life, this story is very helpful today with all the distractions social media offers

  7. Krishna on August 27, 2016 at 4:32 am

    Very nice inspirational story

  8. ammirendra reddy on August 16, 2016 at 1:40 am

    This story is nice …………….real truth of enjoying life can be understandable by this story

  9. abhi on August 16, 2016 at 1:19 am

    This is a very nice story it can change so many minds by understanding what is important first in ur life and it will give inspiration

    • EM on October 10, 2018 at 9:58 pm

      This is a nice story, it can also be a warning to what not let take control of our lives

  10. abhi on August 16, 2016 at 1:18 am

    This is a very nice story it can change so many minds by understanding what is important first in ur life

  11. […] I feel like we get that empty jar every day, and for some reason we can only fill it with pebbles, even though we know what the big […]

  12. Hilda Bogossian on April 22, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Hello Dr. Larson,
    Congratulations on your new position!
    Thank you for your very thought- provoking story.
    When life is constantly challenging us – death of a spouse, loss of a job and financial strains….or all at the same time….it is important to step back and remind of ourselves of our blessings.

    • Clark on June 17, 2018 at 1:42 pm

      That the key…..God know your life and your plans ,what better ways to have God help you. God want to help you with your life to make an better life

  13. shannon harley on October 2, 2014 at 11:15 am

    I used this analogy for a teen church lesson about hope and it worked very well. thank you,

    • Jean Storlie on October 2, 2014 at 11:29 am

      Shannon,
      It is a very powerful story that can teach many life lessons. Thanks for the feedback!
      Jean

  14. […] I’m sure you’ve probably heard the story before, but in case you haven’t you can read it here. […]

  15. […] general principles / points: Learn to think if your time as rocks, pebbles, sand and water. Start with the rocks. If we do not get the rocks done, but we answer lots of emails / do lots of […]

  16. Getting At Work/Life Balance | Learning Zone on November 24, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    […] remember hearing this famous story about a management professor talking about goals, vision, and the effective management of time. […]

  17. Pierrette on August 7, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    Yes, applies to both work and life! Now how to recognize those big rocks vs the pebbles that urgently get in your shoes … 😉

  18. Jon Harkness on August 7, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    I’m going to fix our boat so out daughter can take it out tomorrow. It may feel like a pebble but rewarding her for working 9 days in a row feels like a rock to me!

  19. JG on August 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    Great reminder, Jean. Thank you! Life and work get so much easier when we stay focused on our “Big Rocks” and don’t mistake activity for progress.

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