If you’re even slightly as obsessed as I am with the question of how to manage your time, you may have encountered – and been annoyed by – the Tale Of The Rocks In The Jar. As best I can tell, it originates with the self-help guru Stephen Covey, and goes (in one version) like this: a teacher presents his pupils with a jam jar, a few large rocks, several smaller pebbles, and some sand. Their challenge is to fit them all into the jar. The students, who apparently aren’t very bright, try putting the sand or pebbles in first, but then find the rocks won’t fit. Whereupon the teacher, doubtless with a condescending smile, reveals the answer: put the big rocks in first, then the pebbles and finally the sand, so the smaller items nestle between the larger. The moral: to get around to your most important tasks – your “big rocks” – you have to prioritise them. Otherwise you’ll never fit them in.
But what never gets mentioned is that the teacher is being deceitful. He’s rigged his demonstration by bringing only a few rocks, which he knows in advance will fit. Yet for most people, these days, the main problem of time management isn’t failing to prioritise what matters. It’s that there are too many things that matter: too many tasks we pretty much have to accomplish in order to keep our jobs, pay the rent, be adequate parents, find a modicum of fulfilment, and so on. There are, in other words, too many rocks. And many of them are never getting near that jar.
I was reminded of rocks and jars while reading The Hardest Job In The World, a brilliant recent Atlantic essay in which John Dickerson argues that the American presidency has become an impossible undertaking. Obsessed with the mendacity of the current occupant, we risk overlooking the fact that the demands of the office – managing millions of employees, making life‑or-death decisions, and defeating partisan gridlock while shuttling between ceremonies and channelling a nation’s emotions – might now be beyond the best of people. Perhaps we’ve reached the point where only someone oblivious to their limitations would seek it to begin with.
You’re not the president (I mean, I’m assuming you’re not), but that doesn’t mean you might not be in a similarly impossible position. Maybe your boss’s demands can’t be met with the resources you have; maybe you can’t be the spouse or parent you want to be without quitting your current job. Maybe there’s no path in life that will make you feel you’re meeting your family’s expectations while simultaneously serving your soul. There’s no principle that says you must be able to fulfil all the roles you think you ought to fulfil. And when the rules of a game make it unwinnable, the only way to win is to change the rules.
For Dickerson, that means radically overhauling the presidency. For the rest of us, it means sacrifice – figuring out what you’re willing to abandon or fail at, in order to do what matters even more. Because one thing’s for certain: you’re not making that jam jar any bigger.
Cal Newport’s book Deep Work offers a radical path for carving out time for the most important things – and dealing with the unavoidable truth that you can’t do it all.