The classic productivity advice to “put in the big rocks first” when planning your life, or your day, overlooks a crucial element necessary for productivity.
The Missing Element in Covey’s Big Rocks First Strategy
Our current culture, with its emphasis on 24/7 connectivity, hustle and drive, and “on demand” mindset, has lured us into the belief that “busy” is productive. Each day, we embark on a race to complete our to-do lists as we shuttle from this meeting to that appointment, from this errand to that activity.
In the pursuit of being “more productive,” we get caught up in seeking the strategy that will allow us to fit even more stuff into the container of our days.
The Big Rocks First Strategy
Stephen Covey’s strategy of putting in “the big rocks first” when filling your day, or your life, is widely regarded as one of the fundamentals of productivity.
If you’re new to this strategy, here it is in a nutshell:
Imagine you have a bucket, which you are trying to fill with rocks, pebbles, and sand. How do you get everything in the bucket?
If you put the sand in first, you leave no room for rocks and pebbles.
If you put the pebbles in first, you might have room for the sand, but the rocks won’t fit.
The only way to fit everything in the bucket is to put the big rocks in first, then the pebbles. Then, you can pour the sand into the bucket and it will fill all the spaces in between.
This is an excellent strategy for filling a bucket with stuff. Keep it in mind the next time you head to the beach.
But as a strategy for planning your day, or your life … not so much.
The “Big Rocks First” Strategy Ignores a Crucial Element
One of the many problems with the “Big Rocks First” strategy is that the focus on the “stuff” that goes into the bucket overlooks a crucial element that also must fit in the bucket, but is not easily seen.
Space to breathe. Space to think. Space to be.
Space to connect, with others and within ourselves.
Space to play. Space to wander. Space to explore.
Space to muse. Space to dream. Space to reflect.
Space to feel. Space to plan. Space to rest.
Space to live a life of meaning and purpose.
The Consequences of No Space
When the bucket of our life has no space, we lose perspective.
We enter the cycle of doing, instead of being.
We get wrapped up in churning out content instead of creating meaning and impact.
Without space, we easily get trapped in CHAOS, which is what I call those moments when we feel crazed, harried, anxious, overwhelmed and spinning, among other things. (I have a long list of CHAOS elements.)
Without space, we become vulnerable to the epidemic of outrage that plagues our society.
Without space, we are at risk of being hijacked by emotions like fear, anger, frustration, and doubt.
We separate from others and ourselves. We become quick to judge as we lose our capacity for sympathy, empathy, and compassion. In this state, we may become snappish or lash out at others. We may say things that we don’t mean, or that don’t reflect the truth of who we are.
Without space, we stop listening to others, especially those who have alternate viewpoints, as we entrench in the safety of our echo chamber.
Even more important, without space, we stop listening to our own inner wisdom. In fact, we can’t listen because we can’t even hear it. Our internal GPS simply stops working.
A Breeding Ground for Our Worst Habits
We live in a world where the demand for our attention and energy is constant and increasingly unrelenting. The 24/7 news cycle. The steady stream of information, advertisements, sales pitches, and solicitations. The barrage of expectations from clients, children, parents, spouses, friends, community, and people we don’t even know.
Each of these inputs — and many others — prompts an automatic physiological, emotional, or mental response within us. Sometimes all at once.
These responses are the habits that shape our lives. You may not recognize them as habits, but that’s what they are: automatic responses to a trigger, just like hitting the snooze button when your alarm goes off.
When we neglect to fill our bucket with sufficient space, our bucket becomes an incubator for these habits, which sabotage our productivity and success. We may breed emotional habits such as confusion, hopelessness, anger, or overwhelm. Our bodies react with habits of discomfort in the form of chronic back pain, inflammation, and high blood pressure, among others. We might experience mental fatigue or forgetfulness.
The habit of filling our bucket with rocks, pebbles, and sand — the habit of busy — causes these poor habits of emotion, mind, and physiology. The end result is depleted energy, disconnection from our purpose, and a decline in the quality of our work.
The Essential Element for Productivity
If we want to live a productive life — a life that we use to create meaning and impact in the world — we must break these sabotaging habits.
This requires space.
First, we must create space to cultivate awareness of these habits, because awareness is the first step to change.
Second, we must create space to break our habitual pattern of response. We cannot eliminate all the triggers. We must build the habit of creating space in the moment, to pause and reflect before responding — instead of reacting. This is how we create “the pause between the stimulus and the response” that Victor Frankl speaks about.
We cannot rely on the small spaces left between the rocks. These spaces are insufficient for this important work.
When filling our buckets, we must put the space in first.
I help service-based solopreneurs and creatives create space for their best work and create rituals that break their unproductive habits. For access to work that I don’t publish online, and to join my growing tribe of successful, productive agents of change, subscribe below.