Ask people what their idea of productivity is, and most will say it’s about getting as much done as humanly possible. Let’s explode this myth now: Real productivity is about getting the important things done. What Stephen Covey – author of the best selling book “7 Habits of highly effective people” – calls ‘big rocks’.

In this post, you’ll learn how tackling those big rocks first will boost your personal productivity and speed you towards your goals.

The principle of ‘big rocks’

Have you ever reached the end of a week and realised that all your hard work and effort hasn’t moved you any closer to your goals? This is because you’ve tackled all the small tasks first. You’ve been so busy knocking these off your to-do list that the important tasks – the big rocks – have been neglected. The result is that you have been very busy, but you accomplished little.

Stephen Covey’s third habit is to ‘put first things first’. He suggested that all tasks should be assigned a level of importance. The ones with the highest importance are the ones that matter most, the big rocks, and they should be done first. The following metaphor is used often and clearly illustrates why your productivity is all about the big rocks:

Suppose you have an empty jar, a set of big rocks, a number of pebbles, a bit of sand and lots of water. If you start filling up the jar with water, followed by the sand, then the pebbles and finally the big rocks, you will find that you won’t be able to fit in the big rocks. Worse even, you might not even be able to fill in all the pebbles! However, if you do it the other way around, most likely, you are able to fit everything into the jar! The sand and water will naturally flow around the rocks and pebbles, and fill up every hole!

The point here: You have to put in the big rocks first, or you’ll never get them all in!

You might have guessed the meaning already:

– The jar is your life, or the time you have available.
– The big rocks represent your most important tasks that move you towards your dreams and long-term goals.
– The pebbles are tasks that help you advance your professional and personal life.
– The sand are your everyday to do’s.
– Water
represents all little tiny things you don’t even notice you do.

Putting the big rocks principle into practice – Plan your week ahead

To achieve more and stride towards your long-term goals, you must identify your big rocks and manage your time to complete them. Put the big rocks in first. I recommend a four-step process to do this:

Step 1: Set a time to plan the week ahead

Every week, set aside time to plan the following week. Plan an hour to do this, preferably on a Friday or Sunday evening, at least before your new week starts. Put a recurring meeting in your diary (with a reminder!) to ensure this time is blocked out. After a few weeks, you may find you only need 30 to 45 minutes.

Step 2: Review your mid-term and long-term goals

Map out your goals for the coming weeks and months. Start with a three to six-month horizon. What do you want to accomplish in this time? What’s most important to you?

When preparing for the week ahead, go over the goals you have mapped out. Review and evaluate them and update where necessary and appropriate.

Step 3: Decide which goals you will tackle in the week to come

While reviewing the goals you have mapped out, consider the related tasks that will move you towards these goals. These tasks are your big rocks for the week ahead – your “High Impact Tasks” (or HIT’s). Make a conscious decision to tackle the HIT’s during next week.

Three to five big rocks per week is perfect – imagine taking these big strides towards your goals every week, and what a huge difference to your productivity this will make.

Step 4: Commit to doing the big rocks in your calendar

You’ve identified your goals, and the big rocks to move you towards them. If you don’t commit to doing them, you’ll slip into the routine of wasting time by filling your personal jar with water and sand.

Estimate how long each big rock will take, and plan your diary around these. When filling up your diary start with your big rocks, and plan everything else around them. Don’t try to squeeze the big rocks between smaller tasks. Set aside one to three hours for each big rock, depending on how large it is.

It may be that one of your big rocks will take longer than three hours. If this is the case, split it into two or three smaller rocks and plan accordingly. This strategy is also a must for tasks where input from others is needed.

Whatever you do, do not get disrupted from a big rock task. Treat it like an appointment with a doctor. Turn off your phone. Close the door. Employ email excellence routines. Ignore your social media accounts. Focus on getting your big rock done.

Finally, we all have certain times of the day when we’re most energetic. Schedule your big rocks to coincide with your energy peaks, and do them where you work best.

Be professional, but don’t forget the personal

There’s not many people who have mapped out their goals, written them down, and regularly reflect upon them. Those who have achieve much more than those who haven’t. So if you haven’t, set some time aside now to figure out your goals and dreams and write them down (is this your first big rock for the week ahead?).

If we do have goals written down, nine out of ten times they are focussed on our professional lives. We tend to forget to do the same for our personal lives. So when you set your big rocks for the week ahead, make sure you also cover your personal life! Think about what you want to achieve in your relationship(s), what you want to do with your free time, and what you want to teach your kids.

Big rocks – the key strategy for effective time management

The lesson from Stephen Covey’s third habit is simple: you must start with the big rocks. If you don’t, the pebbles, sand and water will fill up all your time. There won’t be any time for the big rocks. Your goals will disappear over the horizon.

Make sure you tackle a few of those big rocks every week, and watch your personal productivity skyrocket. You will quickly start moving towards accomplishing your personal and professional goals.


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