A time management lesson - Think “rocks, pebbles and sand”


During the course of my personal and management development training sessions, I often ask delegates the following question:

“What one skill, if you learned it and applied it in an excellent fashion over and over again, would have the greatest, positive impact on your life and career?”

By the way, if I asked that question of you right now, what would your answer be?

I think it is a great question as it forces you to choose THE one thing that would have massive potential for you and that you should then focus and concentrate on mastering. What do you think is the most common answer to my question? You won’t be surprised to hear that “my time management skills” is the one that far outscores all others.

I continuously hear comments such as “I never seem to have enough time for all I have to do”, “there are simply not enough hours in the day”, “I am totally stressed by all the unfinished tasks that are on my desk” and on and on.

Do these comments seem familiar? Are you suffering from too much to do and too little time to do it?

Well, let me tell you that you are in good company. Today, most business owners, managers and executives I come across all suffer from lack of time. In truth, those who have mastered it are a rare species. But master it you can!

There are lots of systems, courses, tips and techniques available out there but unless one understands that time is a resource that you have to manage just as one has to manage people, finance, physical assets and so on then all the tips and techniques in the world will not work.

How many times have I seen time management course folders end up on office shelves never again to see the light of day? What a waste of valuable resources…and time!

So let me share with you a few ideas to get you thinking about your time management behaviours and activities to lead you to develop better time management habits.

Firstly, how you think about yourself as a time manager is a critical success factor in how you manage time. For example, if you keep saying to yourself that you are hopeless at managing time and that you never have enough of it, then you will not be disappointed! You WILL be hopeless and never have the time you want. Therefore, self-belief and setting high expectations of yourself regarding your ability to manage time are essential starting points.

Remember, all life is HABIT. How you get up in the morning, what you do first thing, how you travel to work, what you do last thing in the day and so on, is generally “habit”. Time management is no exception and, therefore, mastery is about developing good time management habits.

Next, apply Pareto to everything! Being able to distinguish the 20% of all your activities that will generate 80% of your success and then disciplining yourself to focus only on those 20% is also a rare skill. But is a prerequisite to superior time management.

It also requires you to make a decision and have a passionate desire that, from today, you will commit to being a brilliant time manager. Saying it and doing it are two different matters so determination, will-power and allowing no exceptions are some of the actions and behaviours that are required.

Being able to distinguish those activities that give you the greatest “bang for your buck” (a.k.a. return on investment) from those urgent, “fire-fighting” tasks that seem to drain you of energy and enthusiasm, is also a key skill.

I recall one of the best time management lessons I heard many years ago did not involve having to go on a three-day course. It was a simple, three-minute summary from one of the best time management operators I have ever come across in business. He explained it as follows:

“Remember as a child playing on the beach with your bucket and spade and you would toddle off and return with the bucket filled to the brim with all of what the beach could offer? Well, just like a kid on the beach, I consider the start of everyday as an empty bucket with an opportunity to fill it to the brim in the most efficient and effective way possible.

I consider my activities as rocks, pebbles and sand and, in order to get the best “weight” into the bucket, I rigorously follow a set sequence of filling it.

First I fill the bucket with rocks? Rocks? These are THE most important things that I ensure must get done or actioned everyday. I may not complete them but I must move them along a notch.

These are my top priorities and I classify them as the things that will have the greatest LONG TERM impact on my career and business. I know what they are and so should you. If you don’t know what they are, find out! If you work for someone, ask your manager or the boss! I suspect they will fall into the category of activities like planning, working on “cause, not effect”, introducing better systems and procedures, questioning how we do things and finding easier and smarter ways of getting things done, training others to do your job, learning new skills and so on.

In truth, very few people spend any time on these “rocks” everyday and as a result, they end up dealing with repetitive problems, putting out fires and wasting valuable energy.
I consider, from a personal and family perspective, “rocks” to be e.g. spending more “quantity” rather than “quality” time with my children (i.e. just be there!), committing myself to a worthy cause, teaching others, doing the things that I REALLY love doing that all enable me to become what I can become in life.

Only you know what these are for you but I suspect they are probably the things that you keep putting off and procrastinating about. I suggest you make a list, prioritise them and set about working on number one on the list. I also suggest you do it now…not later today or tomorrow, but NOW!

Always asking yourself if you are making the best use of your time at regular intervals in the day is a top tip. Personally I use a screen saver that pops up every 10 minutes or so and asks me just that: “Am I making the best use of my time right now”. Try it.

So, fill your “bucket” with these rocks first until you cannot put anymore in. Understand? Next move onto the pebbles which are the next most important tasks and activities. When you put them into your bucket, give it a good shake and you will find that they will fill the gaps in between the rocks. But don’t go near the pebbles until you have put as many rocks in the bucket as you can possibly fit. Ok?

Next, put in the sand. What is sand you might ask? Oh yes, the sand! You will find that there is a never-ending supply of it to go around. These are the tasks that are lovely to “play with” and will always give you the feeling that you are “busy”. Busy fool more like! Yes, I understand that you have to get these least important tasks done too but remember that all you have to do is make sure that they get done…but preferably not by you.

Typically, “sand” activities represent the hundreds of little things you engage yourself in and worry about. But, in truth, they don't really matter in the long run. Are you like lots of people who start everyday with these “fun and easy” things to do and invariably end up convincing yourself that you are busy? If every day is “urgent jobs, stressed and up the walls”, but, at the end of the day, you wonder what did you achieve…well, sorry, you have fallen into the trap of playing with the sand.

Do yourself a big favour and stop doing these things immediately. Get away from them, resist them and eradicate them from your life! Remember that time management success, in fact all success, is about moving from low value activities (sand) and moving towards high-value activities. The sand should only be used to fill in the crevices between the rocks and pebbles”.

So, the lesson in all of this is to remember the sequence. Resist doing the little things first. Making the best use of your time everyday means putting the rocks in first, then the pebbles and, lastly, the sand. If you fill your bucket with sand, you will never have time for the rocks and fail to get to what is truly important and have the greatest impact on your job, career and life.

The great news is that, as a time management master, everyday from now on, you have the choice to decide on how to spend your time on the tasks and activities that will give you the greatest return on investment.

Think “rocks, pebbles and sand”, get your life back and give yourself the opportunity to become what you have always promised yourself to become!


Billy O'Connor is Managing Partner of The Discovery Partnership, a network of experienced, professional consultants working with SMEs to facilitate positive change and maximise the potential that exists within individuals and teams in those businesses.