How to Manage Your Time by Focusing on the Big Rocks

Shortly after starting my first federal position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I attended a leadership seminar that featured the director at the time. I remember sitting in the auditorium surrounded by a diverse group of scientists and administrative professionals.

Thinking back, this was a moment that gave me a strong feeling of pride and gratitude for being given the opportunity to join the federal service, no less this incredible, dynamic institution where I would learn more than I ever imagined.

Fast forward, and it has been 13 years since I attended that seminar. Although I don’t remember all that was presented in that forum all those years ago, I do vividly recall a metaphor that was used, which has stuck with me ever since. This senior leader used the concept of “big rocks” to suggest an approach to time-management that I found to be so simple and elegant. They urged the audience to focus on our big rocks as a means to help us navigate our life and ever-changing priorities.

I was inspired to dig deeper and learn more about this concept, which Stephen R. Covey helped to popularize. In case you aren’t familiar with it, I encourage you to watch this video to learn more. The idea is that you have big rocks, smaller rocks or pebbles, and a bunch of sand that represent the myriad things you focus your attention on each day.

  • The big rocks are those unshakable things in your personal and professional life that must come first and cannot move.
  • There are also smaller rocks that represent lesser priorities that come next.
  • Finally, the sand represents the myriad things that demand attention and may appear to be urgent but are not.

A jar is then used to illustrate the limited time you have in your day. With these supplies, you are challenged to fit all the rocks, pebbles, and sand in the jar. You discover that if you first fill your time with the sand and pebbles, there is not enough room in your day for your big rocks. The rocks need to be the first things that go into the jar if you are to be successful in prioritizing in accordance with what is most critical. The sand will fill in space around your big rocks.

There are some layers to what on the surface appears to be a simple concept. You need to figure out what your “big rocks” are in order to define and set your priorities. This may not be immediately apparent, and in going through this examination, it will help you develop a big picture perspective and perhaps more clarity for the long term. Especially in the fast-paced lives we all lead now, this helps us be more strategic in how we use our precious time. It also helps to illuminate what is most critical that needs to be accomplished in the days and weeks, versus what is less critical and can wait. In the context of work, this may require conversations with your supervisor about your priorities. Similarly, you may also need to self-reflect on what is most important to you and your loved ones.

Without a strategic and intentional approach to how we prioritize, we may find the sand takes up all our time and prevents us from achieving what is most important. Examples include failing to make important medical appointments, missing exercise, or not following through on an important commitment. When we do this, we sacrifice our big rocks at the expense of things more trivial or not as time-sensitive. What may also not be as visible is the damage that will result if we continue to operate this way.

There are so many ways this analogy can be manifested in our lives and help us plan out the use of our time. This concept deeply resonated with me early in my career and has been a guidepost for how I approach my life. I hope it helps you too.

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Christine is Deputy Director, Office of Ethics and Integrity of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the FDA, DHHS or the federal government. Christine also serves as a Community Volunteer Leader for the American Red Cross, Montgomery, Howard, and Frederick County Chapter, and on the advisory committee for her city pool and fitness center. She is inspired to write about endurance, volunteerism, and career management, among other topics. In her “spare” time she is an avid swimmer and runner, and enjoys spending time with her family, friends and pets. Her motto is: “Work hard, play hard.”

This writing was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the FDA, DHHS or Federal Government.

Photo by Leonhard Niederwimmer on Unsplash

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