Rocks, Sand, Gravel and the Jar of Life

(Originally posted on LinkedIn)


Back-to-school time always has me waxing philosophical, and this year is no different.  You know that story about the college professor with the jar of rocks, gravel, sand and water?   If you don’t know it, put your search engine to work; it’s worth a read.  I’ve read that story several times as it makes its way through my news feed or email inbox every so often.  Every time I read it, the story resonates with me.  If you haven’t read it, it is a great reflective piece about identifying the things that are most important to you (represented by “big rocks”), and putting those first in your life so you don’t get bogged down by the little stuff (represented by small rocks, gravel, sand and water) with no room/time/energy/resources left for what really matters.

I am in complete agreement with the message of the story.  Sold.  I get it.  Professor, you had me at “jar”.  I know in a very academic way that reprioritizing my life to put the “big rocks” first will result in positive outcomes for me, and by extension, for my loved ones.

Hey, I should probably be the poster child for the “big rocks” movement.  Because, sometimes (well, really most of the time), it feels like someone backed up a dump truck full of little rocks, gravel and sand and dumped it on me when I wasn’t looking, then turned the fire hose with freezing water on me for good measure before dumping the big “rocks” on top of my head.

My “big rocks”?  Well, let’s just say that “balancing the checkbook”, “doing laundry” and “cleaning out the junk drawers” don’t even warrant an honorable mention on my list.  That’s because they are the tasks of life, not the things that really matter.

But it is truly a constant struggle to put the “big rocks” first when I feel like I am being buried alive by the little things that never seem little at the time.  Somewhere in between commuting, earning a paycheck, grocery shopping, doing laundry, returning emails and phone calls, paying the bills and [insert your multitude of tasks here], the time needed to prioritize what matters most is ironically often eaten up by what matters right now.

And therein lies the rub.  It is so easy to succumb to the pressure to get the little things done every day, and to work harder and longer; to get so busy with the tasks of life, that we’re not really living life.

So, what’s the secret to making it all work, to fitting everything into the “jar” of life?  I don’t (and won’t) pretend to know the answer to that question, but one thing is sure:  the “jar” each of us is given doesn’t get any bigger.  The glass, while remarkably resilient, is still susceptible to cracks and fractures.  If we’re not careful, our “jars” could shatter completely.

Here are three things I’m going to put into practice to help me focus on what’s important with my “jar”:

  1. Sharing the little rocks, gravel, sand and water. This is probably the easiest “fix”, and will involve finding help for all of those little tasks of life that have to get done anyway.  I will need to remind myself to not be too afraid or too proud to ask others for help with the “tasks” of life when that help is needed.  Even taking one dreaded chore off the plate should help redirect that time and energy to doing something more fulfilling.
  2. Sharing the big rocks. Chances are, you have someone else in your life, be it a spouse, partner, a parent or a close friend, whose jar of life isn’t as full as yours at the moment and who would gladly help you manage YOUR big rocks. In fact, one or more of your big rocks might be the same as one or more of their big rocks.  When someone I care about asks me for my help, I will usually try to do what I can to help them.  I’m guessing that’s probably true for most of us, right?  Well, that means that others are likely just as willing to help me/us when I/we need it.  By sharing the load with someone else, we can ease both their burdens and our own.  Win-win.  But, unless that someone else is a mind reader, we may have to let them know that we are struggling, and ask for their help.  I know I personally struggle with this one.
  3. Crushing those big rocks into smaller, more manageable pieces. Sometimes, the best way to handle big projects is to break them into bite-sized chunks, so  I’m curious about whether this will work for the “rocks”.  For many of us, and this is true for me, the “big rocks” are often people rather than things. (And just to be crystal clear, I am not suggesting that anyone should crush people into small chunks.)  I do need to periodically remind myself that I don’t need to carve out entire weeks to spend one-on-one with those important people, although there is enormous value in that too.  Having coffee (or ice cream!) together; going for a walk around the block; putting down the electronics and engaging in real, meaningful conversations with each other are all seemingly little things that can have gigantic impacts on those relationships.  Every little bit matters, and those little things are often at the very core of the big rocks.

Personally, I am still trying to find the balance.  Admittedly, most of the time, you’ll find me buried in that pile of gravel and sand, my hands emerging from the rubble just high enough to wave the white flag of surrender.  But, like most things in my life, this is a work in progress, and I intend to be more mindful about finding that harmony and balance.

How do you fit everything into YOUR “jar”?

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