Big rocks first

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I’m not sure how this became a longer thing than it is. Maybe that’s because prioritization, the subject of this piece, is a longer, harder thing to do than it seems at a distance. Anyway, this illustration started as a little morning drawing of an idea that I revisited from a book excerpt and grew into the series of illustrations below. It’s been a fun exercise in playing with a brush pen, seeing how I could talk about an idea thorough pictures, and put together disparate pieces of each into some sort of whole (using GIMP for image editing). Here are the different illustration “parts” explained with the compined composite I created at the end.

Imagine you have a large glass jar. Next to it, you have a few large rocks, a small pile of marble-sized pebbles, and a pile of sand. If you put in the sand or pebbles first, what happens? You can’t fit the big rocks in. But if you add the big rocks, then the medium-sized pebbles, and only then the sand, it all fits.” In other words, the minutiae fit around the big things, but the big things don’t fit around the minutiae.

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Three simple steps

You’ve probably heard of this concept around prioritization being like filling a jar with rocks.

Focus on the big rocks first. It’s a simple and powerful concept that makes total sense. But why is it so hard to do, let alone do consistently?

Step 1: Reset

Let’s start with the obvious and too-often-ignored prioritization helpers: putting away your phone, getting outside and exercising, tidying up, and taking a nap. Works wonders for everything it seems.

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Step 2: Give yourself a break

Next, once you’ve gotten the basics taken care of, you can give yourself a break with the following knowledge (sticking with the metaphor, of course): big rocks are harder to handle that small ones. Big rocks can be heavy, they can be sharp, they might crumble when we touch them and we can be embarrassed that we thought they were big in the first place. Sand is easy to scoop and gives instant gratification. The bigger the rock, the more resistance we feel.

Another thing that makes prioritization hard is that we all play a lot of roles in our life, and make a lot of commitments that come into conflict with each other. In other words, we all have a lot of jars to manage.

“Most people feel best about their work the week before they go on vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, organize, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. You do this so you can relax and be present on the beach, on the golf course, or on the slopes, with nothing else on your mind. I suggest you do this weekly instead of yearly, so you can bring this kind of “being present” to your everyday life.” (David Allen, Getting Things Done)

Step 3: Simplify

Added on top to all of this is the fact that things are constantly changing. The rocks in your jars today may one day not be the rocks you need, nor want, tomorrow. You should to be ok with frequently dumping out your jars and refreshing them often.

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“I learned that if you work hard and creatively, you can have just about anything you want, but not everything you want. Maturity is the ability to reject good alternatives in order to pursue even better ones.” (Ray Dalio, Principles)

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Step 4: Enjoy it while it lasts

Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to do the above well enough and long enough for something great to happen. Enjoy it while it lasts, you’ll soon need to start again.

The full version

Here is a full version of the above stitched together into a single info illustration.

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How it looked coming together

The various pages of my notebook where I did the different illustrations below.

6 responses

  1. Another great post, Nick! The portion of this post that resonates deeply with me is “Simplify”. This part can be hard if you don’t get clear on “important” vs. “urgent”. Only keep important things. Urgent things will come and go and are very transient and end up being quite the carrying cost and slow you down over time. If it doesn’t matter, get rid of it! Great job with this, keep it up!

  2. […] I have become more creative by taking things away from my daily habits as well. Prioritization is already hard. Distractions, needless process, and an over-dependence on needing to keep things too tidy and neat […]

  3. […] As one of my co-workers said about another colleague who was having performance issues in a new job, “He took a job he didn’t care about, and then he didn’t care about it.” Don’t not care. Remember, big rocks first. […]

  4. […] try to prioritize the big rocks first but often […]

  5. […] written and shared a lot about how to prioritize before (i.e. big rocks first), but I recently came across the “2 list” strategy of Warren Buffet. The strategy it […]

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