Six impossible things

Rocks in a Jar

There’s an old story about time management and prioritizing that I dearly love, not least because I’ve seen it repurposed several times.

The story, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with already, is the one about the professor who walks into class with a large jar. He proceeds to fill it with big rocks, and then asks the class whether the jar is full. They say yes. He pulls out some BBs and dumps a bunch in, so that they fill up the spaces between the big rocks. Is the jar full? Absolutely yes, says the class. He pulls out some sand, and manages to get about another half-cup into the jar in between the rocks and BBs. Is it full? Some of the class has finally figured out that this is a trick question, so they say No this time. He nods and pulls out a jug of water, which he pours slowly in until the jar is finally full.

Then he asks the class what the point of the demonstration was.

The first time I heard this story, the point was supposed to be that one could always find small bits of empty time in one’s day, in between the larger tasks, and one could accomplish a lot by using them productively. (It was a very old version, from the early 1800’s, I think, involving a crate full of cannonballs, small shot, sand, etc. Apparently time management problems go back a long way.)

So I did that. I wrote my first five novels largely by taking a notebook with me to lunch everyday, and writing with one hand while holding my sandwich in the other.

The second time I heard this story told, the professor’s point was that if you didn’t put the big rocks in first, you’d end up filling the whole jar with sand or water, and never get any of the bigger things in. By analogy, this meant that one should schedule the big, important tasks first, and fit the ones of less importance in around them.

I tried that, too, though it was trickier than I expected. Still, making writing my first priority most days and letting dishes and laundry wait for later worked pretty well after I quit my day job, as long as I didn’t wait until the dishes were blue and fuzzy and I had no clean socks at all before finally doing my life maintenance.

The third time I heard this story, the point was a little more subtle. At the end, when the professor has filled the jar with water, he asks again whether it is finally full. Most of the class says “Yes,” but some of them still say “No,” because they figure the prof is somehow going to find a way to add even more to the jar. The point this time was that one has to recognize when something really, truly is full – the point when one can’t take on any more tasks without letting go of some of the existing ones. The jar is only so big; when it has as many big rocks in it as it will hold, one can’t stuff another one in. Smaller rocks, BBs, sand, water fit in…but each time, the professor had leftover stuff. Which means tasks that did not get done.

This is one that I struggle with all the time. It’s much too easy to tell a friend or an editor, “Sure, I’ll write a blurb for your book” – it’s only a couple of sentences, right? And that convention that wants me as a guest will only take two days (OK, four, counting travel time). And those out-of-town friends are only going to be visiting for a few days…and the next thing I know, I haven’t gotten any writing done and the dishes are blue and fuzzy. Because there’s only so much time, and every one of those things has to squeeze out something else.

It’s taken me years to learn how to say “No, I am sorry; I’d enjoy doing that very much, but right now, I don’t have time. Maybe next year.” And I’m still not as good at it as I’d like to be.

The last time I heard that story is my favorite. Because in that one, the professor gets to the end and asks the class what the point is. They’re very smart, and they all have Internet connections that they can use Google on, so they tell him all the “right” answers: you can fit a lot of jobs into the “empty” spaces of your day, you have to schedule the important things first or you won’t have time for them, eventually all the time really is full and some jobs will just have to be left over.

And the professor said, “Those are all very good answers, but the point I want to make is this: once you have filled the jar this full, it is too heavy for anyone to lift.”

Trying to do everything, trying to fill every minute and second and nanosecond of one’s day with useful activity, will burn you out eventually – and eventually is usually sooner, rather than later. “Empty” bits of time serve a purpose; everyone needs down time to recuperate.

I remind myself of this at least once a day, sometimes more often – whenever I start feeling guilty because my mouse is hovering over the icon to launch Civilization IV instead of over the one for my word processor.

  1. *sigh* Yes. I’ve pared down, scaled back and still my day is too full. Scheduling works. I hate scheduling. *sigh*

    Love the last bit. I hadn’t heard that one yet.

  2. I love this blog entry! I’d heard the first and the second explanations, and the third was interesting, but I loved the last. Great story with lots of room for thought. Thanks!

  3. Love this–I’d never heard all 4 interpretations before, and am feeling very appreciative. Though, I’m trying to remember the first time I heard that story … I think the point I heard was simply not to assume that you’re done when you think you’re done. That you shouldn’t assume anything.

  4. All of my writing, all of my ideas for characters and plots, it all comes out of my ‘down time’. It took me years to realize the more ‘nothing’ I did, the more fuel I had.

  5. You know, I was just wondering how I managed to have absolutely no time for writing when I had all these empty spaces in my schedule. I just hadn’t noticed the water rising up around the rocks until i spent 20 hours doing homework this weekend. It’s time to tip some out, or at least reorganize like mad.

    Thank god for labor day!

  6. I love this! I was just griping about time management on my own blog (after your last entry on the topic), and one of my friends left a comment telling this same jar story. I told my husband about it and he added that what works for him is taking a hammer to the rocks (breaking down all his major projects into tiny steps).

    • Mary -Yes, exactly – and the importance of “empty time” is something that it is really hard to convince non-writers of, because it looks like you’re goofing off. Shouldn’t you be writing instead of (knitting, going out to dinner, watching football, reading a gardening book, whatever)? It’s hard to explain why it doesn’t exactly work that way…

      Cara – That’s yet another possible interpretation – it’s the big rocks that everyone sees and notices, but it’s the rising water that you drown in!

      satsumabug – I like that one, too! Though really, I’d like to take a hammer to the jar itself sometimes.

  7. I really like that last point. I hadn’t heard it before, though I do know it. That’s why I don’t feel guilty for taking time off over this long weekend – and also why I try to keep my hobbies to a minimum.

  8. Iabsolutly love this blog. i have heard many diffferent explanations for this experiment but never explained so clear tp me like that. i cant really tell which one i like best but i think the resl lesson here is to learns and perterpet them all into your life.

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