There’s a story Stephen Covey popularized years ago about a teacher who filled up a large jar with several big rocks. The instructor then poured in some smaller pebbles to fill in the space between the rocks. Finally, he poured in some sand to fill in whatever space remained. The point of the illustration was that if the pebbles and sand had gone in first, there would have been no room left for the big rocks. In order for the big rocks to fit, they have to go in first. Similarly, if you want to make sure the important things in life (the big rocks) are taken care of, it’s important to block out time for them before everything else. Otherwise less important things (the pebbles and sand) will soon fill up all your time, leaving no space for the things you really care about.

I’ve written about this illustration before1, and I think it makes a valid point. But Oliver Burkeman, in Four Thousand Weeks2, points out that there’s a problem with how the story is usually framed. In the story, the teacher brings several big rocks, but they can all still can fit in the jar. But this isn’t true to life. The challenge that most of us face is that we have more big rocks than we’d ever be able to fit into the jar. It’s not just a matter of placing the big rocks in first. It’s that even if we put them in first, they’re not all going to fit. Some—many!—of the important things will still go undone, not because we didn’t prioritize them, but simply because we’re finite beings with limited time.

The reality is we’ll never get to all the important and valuable things we’d like to. Choosing to focus on one important thing means there will be less room for other equally important things. And although facing our finitude isn’t exactly enjoyable, the sooner we embrace our limits, the less guilty we’ll feel when we have to set aside some good and worthwhile things, not because they’re not important or valuable, or because we haven’t prioritize properly, but because there are limits to what we can do.

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  2. Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, 72–73. ↩︎