How to Put Your Needs First and Not Sweat the Small Stuff

Copyright 2006 Donna Gunter

I recently read James Patterson’s novel, Sam’s Letters to Jennifer. Part of the premise of the book is that the main character, Jennifer, learns about the life of her grandmother (Sam) through the letters Sam has left for Jennifer to read. These letters chronicle what Sam’s life had really been like in her 70 some-odd years of living.

Jennifer discovers these letters as Sam lies in the hospital in a coma, and the letters cause Jennifer to reflect both on her life growing up around her grandmother as well as the current state of her life. In one of her letters, Sam fondly recounts Jennifer’s need to bring part of her grandmother home with her as each summer ended, so Sam would give Jennifer a Mason jar to put in sand, stones, rocks and water for Jennifer to take home with her.

The scene in this novel reminded me of a great time management story that I’ve heard about how to put your own needs first.

One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will never forget. As he stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.”

Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on the table in front of him. He then produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?”

Everyone in the class said, ‘Yes.”

Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the space between the big rocks. Then he asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?”

By this time the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them answered.

“Good!” he replied. He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in the jar and it went into all of 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.” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

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 it!”

“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

What are the “big rocks” in your life–your children, your loved ones, your education, your dreams, a worthy cause, teaching or mentoring others, doing things that you love, time for yourself, your health, your significant other? Remember to put these BIG ROCKS in first or you’ll never get them in at all.

If you sweat the little stuff (the gravel, the sand) then you’ll fill your life with little things you worry about that don’t really matter, and you’ll never have the real quality time you need to spend on the big, important stuff (the big rocks). So, tonight, or in the morning, when you are reflecting on this short story, ask yourself this question: What are the ‘big rocks’ in my life? Then, put those in your jar first. It’s a practice from which you’ll always benefit.