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Mastering Prioritization: How to Use The Simple Big Rocks Theory

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Do more. Do it faster. Do it easily.

Here’s a cold question: what is your most important task of the day?

Don’t think about it. Just answer.

Most people will blunder to give me a fast answer. They will provide more options. Or, they will try to justify their choice. But my question was simple:

  • one task
  • and it has to be the most important.

So why can’t you find one? And why are you trying to justify it?

There are two problems here: insecurity and no prioritization. But only the second one has a quick fix. So, let’s try to solve it.

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The Big Rocks Theory

The Big Rock Theory is a simple way to describe how prioritizing the wrong tasks in your life could make you renounce what matters the most.

The legend says a professor once put a big jar on his desk and a couple of different sizes and shapes of stones. Then, he made two demonstrations.

  • First, he filled one jar with all the small stones. Then, he added a few of the big ones. But he had to leave most of them outside because they didn’t fit.
  • Then, he emptied the jar and refilled it again. But this time, he started with the big rocks. So he added the small ones that slid in the holes between the big ones.

And he used these two demonstrations as a life lesson about prioritization.

“What the rocks” are you talking about?

You might wonder how those two demonstrations can teach prioritization to students. But think about it.

If you start your day by finishing all the small and easy stuff first, you won’t have the energy and time for the most important ones. And you will have to delay them until the next day.

However, if you start with the fundamental tasks, you can fit others between them. So you could integrate the small tasks whenever you have a few free minutes or finish earlier.

Also, there’s a difference between leaving a big or small stone out of the jar.

  • The large stone will be harder to fit in the following days because of its clutter. So you are delaying it indefinitely.
  • You can leave out many smaller stones because you will always find a space for them in the following days.

So, how can you master prioritization with the big rocks theory?

How to Learn to Prioritize

The Big Rocks Theory is fascinating. It shows you why you should start with the most fundamental tasks first. But it’s nothing more than a story. It doesn’t give you the tools you should use to improve your prioritization skills.

Luckily, you have me. And you have The Challenge.

So, let’s find a way to improve your prioritization skills together. And let’s start with the two variables that impact the size of your stones (no second meanings here, I promise).

  • What happens if you finish or skip a task?
  • How much time do you have left?

1 — What happens if you skip?

Understanding the consequences of a missed task is the only way to state its importance.

If skipping it gives you no consequences, it doesn’t matter. It’s not fundamental. It’s only a little stone. But if neglecting a task has any negative impact on your future, you should prioritize it.

Also, distinguish between short and long-term consequences. Losing one gym session is irrelevant. At worst, you may consume 500 calories that day, but nothing will change.

But if you add up those little effects, you create catastrophic long-term consequences. And that’s why going to the gym should be a big rock if you don’t make enough daily movement.

2 — How much time do you have left?

Urgency is the other parameter that defines the importance of a task.

How much time do you have left for it?

If you have a lot of time, you will also have a small stone. But if you don’t, your stone will grow.

(Yes, in my world, stones can grow. Deal with it.)

You might also wonder what to do with tasks without deadlines. But that’s not a case you should worry about.

If you are using S.M.A.R.T. goals, you must have time-bounded tasks. So, the deadlines become the end of your goal.

The Eisenhower Matrix

Now, let’s put everything into an infographic. We could structure this as an Eisenhower Matrix.

The Eisenhower Matrix is one of the methods I suggested to create your perfect productivity routine. And you can use it to acknowledge the priority of your tasks.

The matrix has only our two variables, so you will have four resulting spaces to put each task.

1 — Do

In the first part of the matrix, you can find the urgent and fundamental tasks. Those are the things you must do and prioritize in your planning. They have short deadlines and significant consequences.

2 — Schedule

In the second space, you will have tasks with unclear or long-term deadlines but negative consequences if skipped. You can schedule these tasks for another day.

3 — Delegate

Then, some tasks are negligible, but you have to do them anyway because they have a deadline.

Those tasks don’t require your specific skill set. So you can delegate them.

4 — Delete

And then you have tasks with no consequences and no deadlines. Usually, those tasks create the illusion that you are removing something from your to-do list. But they have no purpose. So you can delete them. They are mere distractions.

The Challenge of The Week

Train your prioritization skills by filling the Eisenhower Matrix every week/day with your tasks. You will learn what matters and what doesn’t.

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Original Publication: Mastering Prioritization: How to Use The Simple Big Rocks Theory