Stones & Pebbles

by Jin, 10-10-08 // 13 comments

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.


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Antti K. 10-10-08


Thanks for an excellent blog. While I do know a thing or two about bad time-management, I had not heard this example story before.

For example, my friend gave me a time management book called “Getting things done” two years ago for my birthday, and I’m still yet to read it. :)

Seriously, though, your blog really made me think.

Whereas I have a pretty clear idea of the items on my to-do list, your entry made me realize I need to sort them to stones and pebbles. On the same note, I wish you expanded more on what your “stones and pebbles” are.

Steve J. 10-10-08

The background photo here really fits for the blog, and it’s beautiful as well. You keep writing them and I’ll keep reading them.

Jin 10-10-08

@Steve, thank you. Funny story about the background photo: I spent a really long time searching on Flickr for the right photo. Then I realized I have some pebbles in my living room. So the whole hour I wasted on Flickr could’ve gone to actually writing the blog. Talk about bad time management!

@Antti, that’s a good suggestion. I didn’t write about my own stones and pebbles because I wanted the story I quoted to be the star of this article.

As for my stones in my life, it’d be time spent with family. For pebbles, it’d be career. Everything else pretty much makes up the sand and water. (hmm I’m having a zen moment??)

As far as specifics to a web design project: stones would be getting the design concept down first, figuring out what the goal is for the site. Pebbles would be usability. Visual elements (graphics and copy) come next, I guess you can call that sand. Then finish the site with technical stuff(coding, scripting etc).

John B. Kendrick 10-11-08

Excellent story. While I haven’t heard the story before, I have used the analogy in my own Time Management trainings over the years – I believe Covey originated the concept but I could be wrong.

Many people just need a simple way to get started with Time Management. I recently wrote a post on my blog entitled “How to Get Started with GTD” at that your readers may find helpful. John

PM Hut 10-11-08

This is probably one the best posts I’ve ever read. Every Project Manager in the world should read this article, so that s/he can know how to prioritize the tasks.

Thanks Jin!

Jin 10-11-08

@John, thank you for the link, I’ll definitely check it out.

@PM Hut, thanks!

Jean 10-12-08

What an inspirational stories…
About Time-Management, I was a professional procrastinator, Until I’ve read: Eat that Frog

Fanny-Min Becker 10-13-08

Thanks for the story. Really enjoyed it. I recently took one big stone out of my jar so as to make space for more pebbles. But your entry is most inspiring. FM:)

Jin 10-13-08

@Jean, FM, thanks.

As I reflect more on this story, I think every stones and pebbles can be further divided into “subjars” (lol subjar, i’m so gonna ™ that word). Basically every task, or priority is made up by many smaller modules. The concept of completing important task is sound, from a macro/micro viewpoint.

Reading this article has caused in me the equivalent of a slap in the face to wake me up.

I’ve been giving so much focus to the sand and pebbles. No wonder the large stones don’t fit!

Jin 10-16-08

@Joomla, only if we can keep getting bigger jars, but life doesn’t work that way :)

b 11-24-09

thanks i was searching 4 this. it was told by my prof of strategic mgt at FMSB

Si 01-26-10

I remember being told this story in my uni days. Only, instead of water, my lecturer poured in a bottle of Budweiser, proving that “No matter how busy your life may be, there is always room for a beer” :)