I have been mulling over a memorable object lesson that Stephen Covey tells in his book First Things First. I’ve seen various forms of the story over the years; perhaps you have too. Below is a collation of some versions I collected. Even if you recognize the story, it’s one that is good to hear again! As Peter said, “I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them” (2 Peter 1:12). At least I know that I have needed to reflect on it again as this New Year begins.
During a lecture on time management, the instructor set a wide-mouth gallon jar on the table next to a platter covered with fist-sized rocks. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.
Class members offered several guesses. He put rocks in the jar until no more would fit. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?”
Everybody agreed. The jar was full. The instructor reached under the table, brought out a bucket of gravel, and started dumping the gravel in the jar. It filled the little spaces around the rocks. The instructor grinned and asked, “Is the jar full?”
“Probably not,” the class said. The instructor reached under the table, brought out a bucket of sand and started dumping the sand in the jar. It filled in the little spaces left by the rocks and gravel. Once more he asked, “Is the jar full?”
“No!” the class shouted back. With this he started pouring about a quart of water into the jar.
When he asked the class for the point of his picture parable, someone replied, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things in it!”
“No,” the instructor said. “My point is, put the big rocks in first. Think of the rocks as the important things in life. The bits of gravel are things that matter but on a smaller scale. The sand and water are everything else, the truly small stuff. It’s true that you can often fit in some smaller stuff. But if you put those things in first, you won’t have room for as many rocks.”
What are the things that really matter in our life? Time with loved ones? A relationship with God? Our education? Our health? A worthy cause? Teaching or mentoring others? Nudging persons around us toward Jesus? If we don’t deliberately plan to make room in our week for the big priorities, all kinds of smaller things will quickly fill our days and we may never get to some of the truly important things.
Each morning, or perhaps each night, it’s good to examine one’s life: What are the ‘big rocks’? Am I putting those in my jar first?