Big Rock Priorities

My career was going pretty well but my family life was suffering. Every Saturday afternoon when the black limo pulled up the driveway I could feel my anxiety and frustration level rise. I felt guilty toward my wife and three young kids because I was going on another international business trip. In a week or so I’d return, tired, jetlagged and grouchy. How many more years was I planning to live this way and, expect my family to put up with this? Where did my priorities lie, career or family?

I wrestled with my situation for a few more years before I finally left corporate America and started working in a non-profit organization about five miles from our home. My income went down by 70% and things that I took as a given, such as beach vacations and private schooling for my children now took on a whole different level of importance.

But I did get my priorities right: family first. I was now able to attend my kids’ ball games and theater productions, and go out for dinner with friends. Priceless.

John Maxwell tells the story about how his domestic travel schedule became a real burden to his family, his productivity level and work satisfaction. Because he lived in San Diego, a beautiful part of the county, he had to pass through the Dallas airport to connect to the many cities in which he was fulfilling speaking engagements. One day he asked his assistant to calculate the time he spent traveling between San Diego and Dallas in a typical year. He was flabbergasted to discover that he wasted 27 full days flying between his home city and airline hub. His priority of living in beautiful San Diego was costing him 27 days per year!

Shortly after making the realization that the location where he lived was stealing his precious time, Maxwell decided to move to Atlanta. He can now travel to most U.S. cities for meetings or presentations and be back home in the evening.

Merriam-Webster defines priority as something that is more important than other things and that needs to be done or dealt with first. And priorities are the things that someone cares about and thinks are important.

Do you know what your priorities are and are you dealing with them first? Priorities might be in the area of:

• Life (e.g. what’s your calling)
• Family
• Spirituality
• Career
• Relationships
• Finances
• Education

to name only a few that come to mind.

I saw a professor talk about priorities once and conducted an experiment that has come to be known as the Pickle Jar Theory. You’ve probably heard of it or seen the experiment. It is rather simple but very revealing.

On two tables we see the same materials: a large glass jar and several large bowels that contain very large rocks, sand, pebbles, gravel and water. On the first table the professor starts by placing the sand in the large glass jar. He follows this up with the water and then is able to add about 1/3 of the pebbles. The glass jar is full.

On the second table the experiment starts differently. The professor first places the large rocks in the glass container followed by the pebbles, then gravel, sand and finally the water. Amazingly the same size glass container is able to hold all of the materials that the other jar was not able to.

The Pickle Jar Theory teaches us that we first need to focus on the really big rocks in our life and work. These are the really important things that need our attention and should be made a priority. Everything else is just filler, noise, if you will, that can be taken care of later or goes away by itself.

What are the two or three big rocks that you have set as your priority?

In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey lays out a very simple priority matrix that I’ve found to be very helpful. (page 151)


We often get pulled into Quadrant I and need to deal with an issue or a crisis right away. Your kid breaks his leg in a football game and you have to get him to the emergency room. A virus is infecting your company’s computers and data is being transferred to Russia or China. I’ll argue that planning and being proactive can often keep us out of Quadrant I, but not always.

Quadrant II is where we want to spend most of our time. This is the space that needs to be our priority and receive our focus. We do have flexibility and can manage the daily schedule as we want, but we need to do it. For example if you have health/wellness in Quadrant II then this might mean working out 4-5 times a week. Whether you work out in the morning, in the evening or at lunchtime is your choice. But priority means you get it done and don’t look for excuses.

Priorities get killed by Quadrants III and IV activities. Stay away from them as best you can!

A big part of being successful with setting and accomplishing your priorities is based on how well you know yourself. Are you a morning or evening person? If you are a morning person then focus on those big rock priorities in the morning. They are probably the toughest objectives you have and you need energy and focus to achieve them.

Maybe you are a procrastinator and find reasons for putting off the priorities you have set for yourself. In this case you might need a coach who can act as your accountability partner.

And do you really know the things you enjoy doing that might be pulling you away from focusing on your priorities: Facebook, e-mails, Twitter? Be aware of these time suckers and limit the time you spend doing them.

And finally, block out all distractions while you are spending time on your priority. This might mean that you turn off your cell phone and shut down your laptop. Currently I have purple earplugs stuffed in my ears to keep out the noise from three loud teenagers.

Let me end with some wisdom from John Maxwell:

Not every leader practices the discipline of prioritizing. Why? I believe there are a few reasons. First, when we are busy, we naturally believe that we are achieving. But busyness does not equal productivity. Activity is not necessarily accomplishment. Second, prioritizing requires leaders to continually think ahead, to know what’s important, to know what’s next, to see how everything relates to the overall vision. That’s hard work. Third, prioritizing causes us to do things that are at the least uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. (page 207)


Stephen R. Covery: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1989

John Maxwell: “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, 2007

Leo Babauta, “Setting Priorities”, Oct. 1, 2009

Dustin Wax: “Back to Basics: Setting Priorities

Jeremy Wright: “Time Management: The Pickle Jar Theory