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The Demonstration

October 27, 2023

A while ago I heard about an expert on time management who impressed his audience. The expert was tasked with addressing a conclave at a major Business School. 30 years later, the students still talk about the lecture that day.

After he was introduced, the expert talked about scheduling, delegating, saying “no” to the many unnecessary decisions a leader was often asked to opine on or make. He talked about lists and monitoring other peoples' progress and how to value time and motion studies.

When it seemed he was winding down to a conclusion, he paused and casually removed his suit jacket and hung it on a chair. He rolled his crisp cuffs halfway up his forearms.

He rubbed his hands together and stared intently at his audience of eager over-achievers and faculty and said, “OK. Time for a quiz.” 

He reached down behind the black lab bench at the front of the lecture hall and set a 5-gallon Mason jar on the table. He then produced a box of fist-sized rocks and proceeded to place them, carefully, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the hall said, “Yes.”

He put his hands on his hips and said, “Really?” 

He reached under the table and pulled up a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks. He added more gravel and repeated the process.

Then he asked the group once more, “Is this jar full?”

By this time his audience was wary and hesitant.

“Probably not,” one of them offered loudly.

“Good!” he replied, and he reached behind the table and brought up a pail of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. 

Once more he asked the question, “Is the jar full now?”

“No!” the classmates shouted in unison.

Once again, he said, “Good!”

Then he produced a pitcher of water and carefully filled the jar to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this demonstration?” 

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things in!”

The speaker rolled down his cuffs and replied, “No. That’s not the point. A full schedule simply means you‘re busy. Being busy is not the same as being productive or effective.” 

He put on his suit jacket and shot his cuffs. He surveyed his audience. There were no more volunteers.

“The truth this illustration teaches us is this: You saw how the smaller things -- the gravel, the sand -- found the spaces; how the water covered everything.

The message is:  If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.

“What is most important? What are the ‘big rocks’ in your life? –A project you want to finish? A dream? Time with your loved ones? – Your faith, your education, your finances? A cause? Teaching or mentoring others?

“Remember to put these BIG ROCKS in first or you’ll never get them in at all. . . 

"We all have the same amount of time. What are your priorities – in life as well as in business? 

“So, tonight or whenever you think about this jar, ask yourself that question. Put the important things first. The others will find a way.”