What do Rocks Have to do With Health?

I love this analogy.  

Stephen Covey was a business author who popularized the ‘big rocks’ approach to productivity. In summary, your total available time for the next week is represented by a jar. You can fill the jar with any combination of big rocks, pebbles and sand.  You have limited space in the jar, so you have to be strategic about how you fill it.

In the business analogy, the big rocks are the big, career-defining tasks. The sand is the minor tasks like email, unjamming the printer, and planning meeting agendas. The pebbles fall somewhere in between.  If you want to get your big rocks into the jar, you need to put them in first.

If you start with the sand and pebbles, there’s often no space for the big rocks. However, we often start with sand because it’s easier and faster.  It keeps us busy, which makes us FEEL productive.  Once the sand is under control, we move on to the pebbles.  By the time we move on to the rocks, they often don’t fit in the jar, so we ignore them, move them back to the “to-do later” pile and look for more sand.

The jar and rock analogy works well with life as well as business. Think about the rocks as things we are focusing on in our lives. The big rocks should represent our most important priorities. These will be different for everyone but could include family time, health, faith, personal well-being (exercise, sleep, meditation), career, or volunteering. 

If we prioritize the big rocks and put them into the jar first, we can then attack the pebbles and sand (things like connecting on social media and zoning out in front of the TV and clearing out emails and getting the laundry folded and weed whacking the front pathway and fixing that leaky faucet) and they will slide in around the big rocks. 

However, many of us ignore some of the big rocks.  Not necessarily all of them (we aren’t getting fired weekly!) but most of us ignore those two big rocks labeled “health” and “personal well-being”.  Deep down inside, most of us want these things – we want to feel good and be healthy and live well, but when it comes down to it, we tell ourselves we are too busy to take care of these things.  We are too busy managing the sand and the pebbles.  And once all of the sand and pebbles are taken care of and put away, there simply isn’t room for the big rocks to fit in the jar.   

Being too busy is an excuse

Being busy and being productive are two different things

Being busy simply means filling up empty time.  We can all do that.  Rather than sitting here writing (which is what is on my calendar to do right now), I could easily jump up and clean off my messy countertop.  I could head out to the garage and finish working on the unfinished step I’m building.  I could search on social media for the perfect fire pit for the backyard.  I could fold the clothes sitting in the dryer.  I could make a grocery list.  There are a million things I could do – and they would all serve some sort of purpose in the future.  However, what I need to do – what my priority is for the morning – is writing.  Once that big rock is tended to, I have a little time to address sand and pebbles before my next priority – going with my son to get his second COVID-19 vaccine.  

Tonight, after hockey practice, my priority is planning out the meals for the rest of the week and getting those groceries ordered.  If I don’t prioritize healthy food that can be prepared in a hurry, we will be scrambling to come up with meals and will inevitably make less-than-ideal, last-minute decisions that don’t align with my value of taking care of my health and the health of my children.  And teaching my children how to eat well and be healthy is a big rock of mine.  

Once I get that priority taken care of, I can tend to some more pebbles.  I can take care of the laundry, of the Mother’s Day cards, of the messy mudroom bench.  I can take a bath and immerse myself in the episode of the Handmaid’s Tale that I’m dying to watch.  I can clean out my email bucket and do all of the other little tasks on my list.  Or I can let those pebbles wait until tomorrow afternoon – after one of my other big rocks (seeing patients) is put in the jar. 

What are you filling your jar with?  If you don’t know what your big priorities are – what your big rocks are –  stop and figure that one out first.  It’s a big deal.  If you don’t know what you want most, how can you make sure those rocks make it in the jar?  Once you know what your priorities are, figure out how you are going to put them in there first.  There will be space for sand and pebbles.  

Doing this isn’t natural for most of us.  It’s a learned skill.  Ironically, it’s also not highly valued.  Most of us are so busy being busy that we don’t feel like we have the time to evaluate our time management.  To make it worse, our culture rewards us for being busy – for being too busy.  Being busy gives us status.  Being too busy to tend to ourselves and letting everyone know about it is an accomplishment.  We brag about only sleeping 5 hours a night.  We brag about having to cart the kids to after-school activities and having to feed them (and ourselves) in the car on the way.  

As a single mother with three kids and a lot of balls in the air, I’ve had to come up with a system to keep me focused each day. 

This is something I came up with that helps me.  Every morning, I spend less than a minute sitting down and organizing my priorities.   I keep lots of these in a three-ring binder on a little desk in my bedroom.  As I write the day’s tasks, I can flip back and see if I still have unchecked things to move to the day’s list.  I can take all of the “I have to” and “I should” clutter out of my brain and stick it on paper.  On days that I’m not going to be home until late, I often take a picture of the list so that I have it for reference.  

In case you were wondering what the other things on the paper are:  I periodically review my life plan and my long-term goals to make sure I’m staying focused on my trajectory.  I decide on a mindset for each day – compassionate, relaxed, curious, focused, etc – to remind myself to be intentional instead of reactive.  Finally, I write down 4-5 specific things that I am grateful for – because doing that makes me constantly evaluate my environment to find things to write down the next day.  When you look for good things and good people, you see them and remember them – instead of having frustrations and negative things be at the forefront of your memory each day.

Life is short.  We need to fill it with purpose and intention and joy and giving and living.  The hamster on the wheel really thinks she’s getting somewhere.  After all, she’s busy.  If you are stuck on a busy hamster wheel without feeling like you are living well, hop off and evaluate for a few minutes.  It might change your life. 

As always, if you need me, you know where to find me!

Courtney Younglove, M.D.

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