This morning as I sit at my computer, I’ve been thinking (somewhat belatedly, it’s true) about changes I might make to my schedule in the coming months to bring my days closer to my real priorities.
When it comes to my long and varied ToDo list, I find it all too easy to get distracted, or tired, or (yes, let’s be honest here) just plain lazy, and I’ve been thinking that what I need might be an image to hold in the back of my mind, a symbol to bring to mind the things I hold most important.
As often happens when I’m preoccupied with something, the answer cropped up when I came across a little story I remembered reading some time ago. [I think Stephen Covey may have used it in his popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.]
You’ll recognize the story, I’m sure:
A time management expert, speaking to an auditorium filled with high-powered business people, used a great illustration to drive home his point. As he stood in front of this group of overachievers, the lecturer said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.”
He pulled out a gallon-sized wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen large stones and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.
When the jar was filled to the top and no more stones would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?”
Everyone in the class said, “Yes.”
“Really,” was all he replied.
He reached under the table again and this time pulled out a small bucket of gravel. He dumped some of the gravel into the jar and then shook it so that the gravel filled the spaces between the larger rocks.
Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?”
By this time the class was onto him. “Probably not,” one of them answered.
“Good!” he replied. He reached under the table once again and this time brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel.
Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”
“No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good!”
He grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was finally filled to the brim. Then he looked over at the group and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”
One eager beaver raised his hand. “The point,” he said, “is that no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it.”
“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point at all. What this illustration really teaches us is this: If you don’t put the big stones in first, you’ll never get them in at all!”
The mason jar symbolizes the finite number of hours in our day. No matter what, twenty-four of them is all we get.
The big stones are, of course, the things that are truly important to us, the ones that we shouldn’t allow to become negotiable–the very things, in fact, that can so easily get pushed aside by all the distractions that come up in the course of our day.
The gravel relates to the things we like to do but can comfortably do without; and the sand signifies those small, unimportant tasks that are attractive and easy to complete, or the myriad useless things we can find to do when we want to check out for awhile. The problem is, they can all expand to fill our day almost without our noticing it’s happening.
If we fill our days with sand and gravel, we run out of room for the big, important stones, and the reality of our lives doesn’t fall into line with our priorities. We have to start by getting our priorities into our day first, before we begin filling in the allotted time with other things.
I keep remembering that line by John Lennon**, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
I don’t want my days to look like that jar above, and I don’t want to hold a negative image in my imagination either. Instead, I’ve decided to take a positive image with me into my daily life to remind me that the Big Stones are the important things in my days.
I’ve decided on three main priorities, with a fourth that will vary from day to day.
This year, my Big Stones will be these:
- Mind: Working through the final edits on my book prior to moving to the next step. This is the top priority because it’s the most pressing at the moment.
- Body: A short daily walk is about all I can manage right now, given the ongoing health problems I’m dealing with these days. This middle stone is the biggest because health issues have been overshadowing my days, and I want to get them resolved. And I will remind myself that a short walk is better than no walk at all!
- Spirit: Reinvigorating my lapsed meditation habit. This stone doesn’t appear to be the largest priority, but you’ll notice that it is, in fact, supporting the others.
- Daily Practicalities: Tackling, one by one, the items on my now unwieldy list of tasks that must get done. This stone isn’t quite a Big Stone priority, but it’s close.
My priorities now sit, fresh and poised in my imagination as they are in the image above, ready to drop into my daily life; and I’m hoping that, for the remainder of the year 2017, this mental picture will help me focus each day on the four most important elements of my 71st year.
** [For the purists among us, a wee factoid: you may not be aware that the first known appearance of this quote was in an issue of Reader’s Digest magazine dated January 1957 in a section called “Quotable Quotes,” and is attributed to Allen Saunders: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” — Publishers Syndicate.]