An inch of gold cannot buy an inch of time
– Chinese proverb
In my last year in college pursuing a degree in computer engineering, my senior design professor said to the class on the first day, rather bluntly “Most of you will fail this class, not because you’re not smart or won’t work hard. You will fail because of poor time management.” I thought it was just his way to scare students to drop his class early, so he’d have an easier time. It’s a technique a lot of professors used on campus. Except other professors would say something like “This is the hardest class you’ll ever take! I have a 10% passing rate.” It was the first time I had heard someone using “time management” as a scare tactic.
Turned out he was serious about it.
My project group did slip behind our milestone goals. Not because we didn’t work hard. In fact, we pulled many all-nighters working in the lab. We totally underestimated the importance of time management and setting up goals strategically. My group did pass the class, barely. A lot of people didn’t. The valuable lesson I walked away from that class with was the importance of time management.
Acknowledging the importance of it was just the beginning. It then took me years to get better at it. When I started freelancing as a web designer, many of my projects fell short, not because of my skills or even bad clients. It was due to poor judgment of time management on my part.
There are countless books and articles on time management. If I have to give a single advice to anyone on this subject matter, I’d re-tell the following story:
One day, an old professor of the School of Public Management in France, was invited to lecture on the topic of “Efficient Time Management” in front of a group of 15 executive managers representing the largest, most successful companies in America.
The lecture was one in a series of 5 lectures conducted in one day, and the old professor was given 1 hr to lecture.
Standing in front of this group of elite managers, who were willing to write down every word that would come out of the famous professor’s mouth, the professor slowly met eyes with each manager, one by one, and finally said, “we are going to conduct an experiment”.
From under the table that stood between the professor and the listeners, the professor pulled out a big glass jar and gently placed it in front of him. Next, he pulled out from under the table a bag of stones, each the size of a tennis ball, and placed the stones one by one in the jar. He did so until there was no room to add another stone in the jar.
Lifting his gaze to the managers, the professor asked, “Is the jar full?” The managers replied, “Yes”. The professor paused for a moment, and replied, “Really?” Once again, he reached under the table and pulled out a bag full of pebbles.
Carefully, the professor poured the pebbles in and slightly rattled the jar, allowing the pebbles to slip through the larger stones, until they settled at the bottom. Again, the professor lifted his gaze to his audience and asked, “Is the jar full?” At this point, the managers began to understand his intentions.
One replied, “apparently not!” “Correct”, replied the old professor, now pulling out a bag of sand from under the table. Cautiously, the professor poured the sand into the jar. The sand filled up the spaces between the stones and the pebbles. Yet again, the professor asked, “Is the jar full?” Without hesitation, the entire group of students replied in unison, “NO!” “Correct”, replied the professor.
And as was expected by the students, the professor reached for the pitcher of water that was on the table, and poured water in the jar until it was absolutely full. The professor now lifted his gaze once again and asked, “What great truth can we surmise from this experiment?” With his thoughts on the lecture topic, one manager quickly replied, “We learn that as full as our schedules may appear, if we only increase our effort, it is always possible to add more meetings and tasks.” “No”, replied the professor.
“The great truth that we can conclude from this experiment is: If we don’t put all the larger stones in the jar first, we will never be able to fit all of them later.” The auditorium fell silent, as every manager processed the significance of the professor’s words in their entirety.
The old professor continued, “What are the large stones in your life? Health? Family? Friends? Your goals? Doing what you love? Fighting for a Cause? Taking time for yourself?”
“What we must remember is that it is most important to include the larger stones in our lives, because if we don’t do so, we are likely to miss out on life altogether. If we give priority to the smaller things in life (pebbles & sand), our lives will be filled up with less important things, leaving little or no time for the things in our lives that are most important to us. Because of this, never forget to ask yourself, ‘What are the Large Stones in your Life?’ And once you identify them, be sure to put them first in your ‘Jar of Life’”.
With a warm wave of his hand, the professor bid farewell to the managers, and slowly walked out of the room.
I first read this story from a mailing-list years ago. It has had a profound impact on me. If you’ve been following my blog, you’d know that I’m a fan of analogies. Identifying the “large stones,” both in my personal or professional life, has helped me to get the important stuff done first. Time is like money, it’s never there when you really need it. Time is also like money, in that small changes add up over time. Accomplish important tasks first, then the rest will come at ease.