Big rocks is a time management technique of always scheduling the most important things first.

Big rocks are the things that absolutely must happen, the tasks on your critical path. Big rocks are your high-leverage activities, those that create energy and possibility. Put the big rocks on your schedule first, then fill in around them.

The term big rocks comes from a visual exercise where an instructor takes a large, open-mouth Mason jar and fills it to the brim with substantial rocks. The jar appears to be full. But then the instructor pours a cup of gravel into the jar and by shaking it, moves the gravel into the voids between the rocks. Once again the jar appears to be full. But, wait. Now the instructor pours a cup of sand into the jar. And by shaking the jar once more, all the sand finds its way in. Again the jar appears to be full. But our instructor has one last cup, this one filled with water. And once again we find the jar can hold more than we think.

One moral of the story is that you can always fit in more than you think. The true moral is that if the big rocks were not put in first, there would be no room for the most important tasks.

What are your big rocks? Financial freedom? Personal growth? More family time? A cause?

When the moment of decision comes, when requests are made of your time and energy, pause and ask yourself, “Is this MY big rock?” Is this important to me (or important to someone or something that is important to me)? Or is this urgent but not important (such as the attention-demanding ring of the telephone)?

Sing out a rousing “Yes!” to your big rocks. Give a civil “no” when the smaller gravel and time try to clog your calendar and sap your energy. Do NOT feel you have to explain your “no.” “No” is a complete sentence.

Given limited resources of time, money, and energy, remember that every explicit yes is an implicit no to something or someone else. Be aware of what you are saying no to. Do not allow others to create your priorities for you by default.

If you feel a desire to say more than a simple no, try this. I often reply, “That sounds like a worthy project/cause and I’m appreciative of your involvement. My schedule is full so I will pass, but know that you have my emotional support and gratitude.”

Your life is yours to create, yours to live. Live it by design, according to your passions, your values, your priorities.

This is a classic from the NSC Blog archive. Originally posted May 11, 2008.