Rocks, pebbles and sand: How to make space for your top priorities


The other day, we heard about a CEO who monitors the number of emails sent within the company. Recently, that number dropped. 

How do you think he reacted?

If you, like us, thought he’d be overjoyed, you’d be wrong. In a post-bums-on-seats world, many leaders are scrambling to find new ways to measure productivity. Many of those measures are as counter-productive as the previous one (see what we did there?). 🍑

We can see why ‘emails sent’ could feel like a sensible measurement – many of us inadvertently approach our roles in a similar way. How often do you finish a ‘productive’ day only to realise all you did was sit in meetings and send emails? 

The only way to break the cycle is to throw a rock at it.

A philosophy professor walks into a classroom…

A philosophy professor walked to the front of his class with a glass jar. He filled it with rocks and asked his students if the jar was full. They said ‘yes’. 

He started scattering some pebbles over the rocks in the jar. The smaller pebbles moved around the rocks until no more would fit. Again, the students agreed that now the jar was full.

He then gathered a handful of sand and poured it over the rocks and pebbles in the jar. Same question, same answer.

Finally, he poured in water. Only then was the jar full.

The moral of the story: make room for what’s important

With that simple demonstration, the professor taught a profound lesson. If you first fill your jar with rocks, the pebbles and sand will fit around them. If you put the sand in first? There will be no room for the rocks. In other words, If you don’t make space for your priorities, the little things will get in the way.

It sounds simple, but there’s one thing you need to know before we continue: Prioritisation is brutal. It’s about challenging the notion that everything is important because the reality is that some things are more important.

Your job is to distinguish subtle differences in the value of different tasks so you can manage your time accordingly. And no, it’s not enough to say ‘everything is a priority’. You only have so much capacity, so you have to make hard decisions. Here’s how to do it:

Identify your rocks: 

In life, these are your non-negotiables, like your health. At work, these are things that are absolutely required. Realistically, you will only have a few true rocks at any one time, so try to stick to a maximum of 3. Remember, you can still do other things, but prioritisation is discipline, and it’s important to distinguish between your must-haves and nice-to-haves. Struggling? Here are two ways to identify your rocks:

1. Break big jobs into smaller tasks:

  • You’re working on a campaign. Missing the launch deadline is unacceptable because the spend is locked in. However, if the graphics, messaging, and videos aren’t perfect? The campaign may not perform as well, but it won’t be a disaster. Your rocks are only the tasks required to launch on time.
  • You’re preparing a big presentation for senior leaders. It would be embarrassing to have less-than-perfect slides, but having confused and ill-thought-out speaking points would be disastrous. Your points are a rock, but your slides aren’t.

2. Ruthlessly weigh rocks up against each other:

  • If you don’t finish a big report, it’ll cause substantial (and expensive) delays, but if you don’t attend an important meeting you could get the notes after. Your rock is the report.
  • If you don’t prepare for a new client pitch, you risk losing critical revenue. If you have to ask an existing client for an extension, they’d be annoyed, but you’d be able to fix the relationship over time. Your rock is the new client pitch.

When you’ve identified your 1-3 rocks, schedule enough deep work time to tick them off.


In life, your friends and hobbies are probably your pebbles. Life would be awful without them, but as long as you have your health, you will survive. Pebbles are the same at work: they’re incredibly important tasks but aren’t critical

All those items that didn’t make it to your list of 1-3 rocks? They belong here. There would be consequences for non-completion, but these consequences would be a little smaller.

When you’ve identified your pebbles, return to your calendar and schedule blocks to tick them off.


This is usually all the urgent stuff that isn’t really that important. These tasks often distract you from your rocks: replying to emails, attending meetings, polishing your output, and doing other people’s work

Your calendar might be looking a bit full now. But like in the jar, the sand will fit around those higher-level priorities.

Tick off these tasks in your gaps – when you have 15 or 30 minutes to spare or need a break to context switch. 

No room left?

You’re looking at your overfull calendar and wondering if this analogy actually works. Here’s the deal: your time won’t magically expand, so your to-do list needs to shrink. Go back through your rocks, pebbles, and sand and be even more ruthless. Don’t be afraid to ask for help either—your manager’s job is to help you perform at your best. Send them this article and your to-do list and ask them to refine it with you.

Take action

Identify one ‘top priority’ that is actually a pebble, not a rock, and deprioritise it accordingly.

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