Big Rocks: My All-Time Favourite Productivity Tip

There are degrees of busyness. Crazy busy, I believe, belongs only to people in the workforce. They are the ones with a zillion things to do at both work and home, often with few people available to help in either location. If you are working and you don’t know about Big Rocks, read on. It could be a sanity saver.

Retirees, I haven’t forgotten you. Our busyness is of a different order, but no less pressing or real to us. I’ve noticed lately that we are working hard to align our actions with our intentions, and that requires taking a good look at how we spend our time. I created my RAW NEWS framework so that I spend time being creative instead of just talking about it. Janis has shortened her GratiTuesday posts so she has time for her ‘passionette’ of photography. And Donna is reducing time spent on her computer so she can prioritize the relationships and activities that bring meaning to her life.

Big Rocks: What It Is

January, the month of intentions, goals and dogged determination, is the perfect time to learn about or remember Big Rocks thinking. Here it is in a classic four minute video from the master himself, the late Stephen Covey.

Big Rocks: What It Isn’t

Dozens of online sites tell the Big Rocks story all wrong. They have a professor showing a class a jar of Big Rocks, asking if the jar is full. Then they add pebbles, sand and water to prove that even more can fit in the jar. No, no, no!

Big Rocks is about understanding that if you don’t prioritize the actions that move you toward your intentions or your goals, they areย never going to happen.

To avoid simply working harder and faster so that we can do everything, we need another step beyond Big Rock thinking. Covey provides this in his excellent bookย First Things First.

Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.

H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

The Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower matrix is based on a quote attributed to the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower is reputed to have said,

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important and the important are never urgent.”

The matrix has four quadrants:

Eisenhower Matrix four quadrants

Covey mentions Q2 in the video. It’s his belief that time spent in Q2 is where we’re going to experience the greatest sense of fulfillment because Q2 is the place for focusing on plans and actions related to our Big Rocks.

There are two reasons we don’t tend to spend much time in Q2:
1. If we are unclear about our intentions and don’t know what’s truly important to us;
2. It is human nature to focus on whatever is in front of us at the moment. Our technology devices are exacerbating this problem because the frequency and immediacy of updates from work, friends and the media makes everything seem urgent even when it isn’t.

Sometimes, we have no choice but to spend time in Q1. Examples often given for this category include a fire in the kitchen, a looming tax deadline, and a crying baby. Any one of those is undoubtedly both urgent and important. When Q1 tasks arise, we have to give them our immediate attention and respond.

Q3, the urgent but not important category, is often filled with tasks that help other people achieve their goals. It includes most text messages, some emails, and lots of interruptions and distractions. In the workplace, it is also the place where you’d put most requests from co-workers.

And finally Q4 describes all of those tasks we default to when we’re exhausted battling Q1 and Q3 tasks. Some typical examples of Q4 tasks might include watching television, surfing the web mindlessly, or scrolling through social media feeds.

How to Use the Eisenhower Matrix

In a perfect world, at least according to Eisenhower aficionados, here’s what you’d do with activities or tasks you listed in each of the four quadrants:

Actions for each quadrant of Eisenhower Matrix
But let’s be real, folks. If helping other people achieve their goals is important to you, there’s nothing wrong with spending time in Q3. And if binge watching Game of Thrones or scrolling your social media feed makes you feel good, it’s your life and your decision.

The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.

Michael Altshule

To me, the value of the Eisenhower Matrix isn’t in turning us into planning puritans. It is a tool to help us choose to live more intentionally by recognizing which activities support those intentions and which ones don’t. If a day feels really wonderful, chances are good that we’ve spent a lot of time in Q2. On the other hand, if we get to the end of the day and are upset that we accomplished very little that was important to us, we can look to see where we were spending our time and make any necessary changes.

Were you familiar with Big Rocks and/or the Eisenhower Matrix? Do you see value in either or both at this point in your life?

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  1. Whoa, that was an amazing post, Karen. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I so needed this right now. I am what you would call crazy busy. Although I don’t work in the public sector (in an office, in retail or the like) I do work on YouTube making videos, I am trying to learn guitar, I answer emails and comments on my videos and those I comment on from others’ channels. I also work a lot at our Church – run the soundboard, program the laptop for every Sunday, take part in Movie Nights, and built a website for the Church that must be maintained once it goes LIVE (target date is April 1st – I know, I said the same thing to the board when I presented the website to them.) I am also trying to read books (working on a Stephen King/Owen King 700 page doorstopper at the moment), plus writing down memories to hopefully have plenty of material for a memoir down the road. All of this plus the usual household drudgery like cooking, cleaning, laundry etc. Did I mention that I was crazy busy?
    I don’t think I have ever heard of either the Big Rocks or The Eisenhower Matrix but boy, do I ever need to make use of them. That four-minute video was fascinating and I had a bit of an epiphany while watching it. I realize now that I have the first bowl and am trying desperately to shove more big rocks into it but the bowl now overflows and I am stressed out trying to keep it all contained. I need to sit down and do some hard thinking about just how many big rocks I need in my life and what those big rocks should be. Time to start a new bowl and do this the right way.
    That Q1 -> Q4 stuff is interesting too. While I am trying to figure out what my big rocks are I also need to figure out what is Important and what is Urgent – I need to find a way to spend more time in Q2 Not Urgent But Important. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I’m really happy to hear that this post was useful for you, Susan. I guarantee that the best use of your time in the midst of your crazy busyness is to sit down and figure out your big rocks. Once you do, most actions related to them go in the Q2 quadrant and you’ll easily know the difference between urgent and important and where all of the other things in your life fit. Good luck!

      1. Thanks for the encouragement, Karen, I am now in the process of figuring out what my big rocks are but I have one question. Maybe you can help me clarify? One big rock is Helping Out At Church but that huge rock contains so many other seemingly big rocks – am I supposed to break them down into their own big rocks or do they remain part of that huge rock?
        I too love the quotes you chose to put on the side of this post, so inspirational. They beg to be put on sticky notes and mounted on my bathroom mirror or computer desk where I will see them every day to remind me.

        1. Hi Susan,
          I was thinking about exactly this dilemma after reading your to-list this morning. Accepting, of course, that only you will know the answer to this, I’m wondering if “helping out at church” needs to be a bit more focused. What I’m saying is that doing the dishes after a potluck is helping out at church and so is driving an elderly congregant to a medical appointment. While they are both ‘helping out at church’, they have very different goals. If helping out meant to you that you wanted to give your time to people in need, taking the congregant to the medical appointment might well be a meaningful Q1 activity, planning ways to help others in the congregation or community would be Q2, but doing the dishes after the potluck would be a Q3 – nice but really not relevant to your goal and therefore not the best use of your time.
          Does that example help you to take a next step in working out your big rocks?

          1. Thanks again Karen, I was thinking along those same lines after I hit enter on my last response. I appreciate the confirmation that I am on the right track. Helping Out At Church will be broken down into several Big Rocks labelled Working Soundboard at Church, Programming Laptop for Church and Working on Website for Church. Those are my main Big Rocks in regards to Church…the rest is all small rocks when it comes to other things I do there. This definitely helps me take a next step in working out my big rocks list.

  2. Karen, thank you for the reminder of this important lesson! Although I no longer live in Crazytown (where I was the Mayor for far too many years) and my schedule outside of work is almost entirely my own, I am still prone to letting the little things steal time and energy away from my goals and intentions. Very timely and gentle prod in the right direction, and much appreciated!


  3. Hi, Karen – Wonderful post! I know both of these models well and respect them deeply. Being the ‘opposite of a procrastinator’ (so rare that I don’t believe that there is a true word for it), I try to do important things before they become urgent. I’d love to say that this is the result of great planning and focus — but it’s truly because I hate spending time in Q1!
    Thank you for the shout out. I greatly appreciate it.

    1. Hi Donna,
      Not spending time in Q1 may explain the calmness you exude in your posts. I had assumed that was a characteristic that emerged in retirement, but it sounds as if you’ve been that way forever. That’s really admirable, Donna. You’re clearly NOT an adrenaline junkie.

  4. I really love the quotes you have added to this post, Karen. So true, and mind-opening. While I often say “I don’t have enough time,” or, “There aren’t enough hours in the day,” I know it boils down to prioritizing what’s most important and, in my situation, not managing my time well. I seem to focus on the wrong things often, because it is easier and more straightforward, as in procrastinating the “real work” I aim to accomplish, and settling for smaller things first, like answering emails and dealing with blogs, my own and others.

    I never heard of the Big Rocks concept, but when watching the video, I was wondering why that woman tried to squeeze in the big rocks, instead of getting rid of (some of) the small ones first (don’t sweat the small stuff), or doing it the way she eventually did at the end. I guess that was the point, but my approach would have been different. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I like the Eisenhower quadrant and had not heard about it before. I agree that we would all be happier if we could focus on what is most important to us. That being said, while I keep Q4 to a minimum, we do need it to relax and become mind-numb sometimes. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I know well the experience you describe in your first paragraph, Liesbet. I refer to it as “clearing the decks” and can burn entire weeks happily taking care of all of the little things preparatory to dealing with the big things which, for me, then fail to materialize.

  5. Karen, I got a huge chuckle at this. My last boss while working was a huge proponent of the rocks thinking. So my last action plan at work was:
    Rock 1) get more pithy.
    Rock 2) plan my retirement
    Rock 3) see Rock 1.
    Yes, I was known for being verbose (in writing, in creating presentations) and he was always “can you make that more pithy?” A skill I have yet to learn. This action plan was made after my retirement was announced and I actually did “file it” with the system. It was a pleasant memory you stirred!

    These days I am trying to link my actions to my values so that I’m doing more of what’s important. And at least acknowledging when I’m doing the stuff that’s not important. I think awareness that the stuff I’m doing is mindless and using that mindlessness for helping with mindfulness – a kind of soothing component – is helpful to me.

    I love how you built in so much of a teaching element to this post. Awesome!!

    1. It sounds as if your boss had a sense of humour to match your own, Pat. I love your last action plan.
      Friends keep telling me that awareness is half the battle. Like you, I do much better with mindless activities when I know that’s what I’m doing. I guess that’s because I’m then making a choice rather than just going numb.
      Glad you liked the post. Thanks for the compliment ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks, Anabel. I hadn’t known the Eisenhower Matrix by that name either until a few years ago when I was looking at productivity apps. There’s an Eisenhower Matrix app on itunes. The model is also called the Eisenhower Box, but that reminds me too much of Skinner and his rats.

  6. Stephen Covey has long been a favourite of mine, in fact his principle of ‘seek first to understand’ probably saved my sanity at some point in my career ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I think we’re all guilty of getting bogged down in the ‘sand’ on occasion, so this post has been a great reminder to “get off the beach and mine the rocks”.

  7. Love it, Joanne. Even in time management and productivity, you give great metaphors of the natural world. That’s reflected in your posts and your chosen activities.
    I too so enjoyed Stephen Covey’s work. It was sad that he died so unnecessarily and too early from complications after falling off his bicycle. I’m glad we have the legacy of his brilliant ideas and strong moral compass.

  8. Hi Karen, Great post! I like your quotes about time. I know both models although I didn’t know the matrix is Eisenhower matrix. At this point in my life, I focus on what’s important and feel relaxed about the rest. I usually think of three most important things to do every day and since there are only three, I usually can achieve them. They’re not big lofty goals, mainly one for my self-care, one for my family and one for my friends.

  9. Hi Karen,
    This was an interesting post. I am familiar with both models through my former work. They did help me to focus on what needed to be done and you are right Q2 provides the most satisfaction. Sometimes I used to like to take a bit of a mental holiday and do a bunch of the little things just so I could cross them off my list and make me feel like I was being productive though. Now that I am retired my “big rocks” are as follows:
    -family and good friends
    -developing new interests (like pottery for me!)
    -working on a major kitchen renovation
    -physical fitness and regular exercise
    -writing my memoir
    -some travel
    In my mind right now these big rocks are far more important than developing and implementing a 5-year plan!

    1. I hear you, Fran. I remember those five year plans in education. I remember initially being thrilled at the prospect of developing them because I love planning. But then I remember feeling quite discouraged that five year plans were developed every year, dutifully submitted to the Board office and shared with the staff, and then forgotten until the next go-round, which always seemed to come almost as soon as the first plan was filed. What a depressing reality!
      Your big rocks are so much more satisfying.

  10. Hi Karen! I’m a friend of Leisbet. And she recommended that I pop over and check out your blog. She says, “I think you will like her philosophy and I feel you two have quite a bit in common.” If this post is anything like your normal then I completely agree with her. I am a big fan of Stephen Covey and am familiar with his big rocks story. And I’m pretty sure I recognize the quadrant idea from him too but never heard it call the Eisenhower Matrix before today. But I LOVE to learn new things–especially things that lead to a more awareness and mindfulness so I enjoyed this and I will be back. ~Kathy

    1. Hi Kathy,
      I’m delighted that you came for a visit, and that you will return. Welcome to Profound Journey!
      I’m deeply appreciative of Liesbet pointing you in my direction. It definitely sounds as if we are on the same wavelength – learners on steroids, as a friend once observed. And I really like the way you’ve captured your learning focus – awareness and mindfulness. That’s very apt for this stage of life.
      I’m on my way to your blog. Looking forward to reading the perspectives of a fellow traveller.

  11. I tend to get pushed off track by a ton of little time-wasters and since I don’t have the kind of hard deadline that I had at work, the big rocks take a back seat. Certainly exploring photography is one of my big retirement rocks (thank you for the mention and link), and there are others too that I need to give higher priority. I guess I’ll always be a work in progress ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Hmm, synchronicity. We both were writing about the notion of big rocks and productivity on the same day. While you were writing about the theoretical framework, I was telling a tale of woe about how I managed to self-sabotage on a day that I had planned to use for one of my big rocks, painting.

    I do think that retirement is quite different than work when it comes to the urgent vs. important quadrants. Essentially, in retirement, pretty much everything that is urgent disappears. So we are left with the choice of spending our time on things that fall somewhere in the range of unimportant to important. I think that is why the transition to retirement can seem so hard for people like me who had productivity-oriented work lives, and why so many of us turn to clarifying our goals and considering our purpose. Without urgent obligations to distract us, there is no longer an easy excuse for why we are not reaching for the goals/doing the things we believe to be most important in our lives.

    As always, very thought provoking, Karen.


    1. This comment is very thought provoking, Jude. I think you’re absolutely right and I appreciate the clarification as to why I have been obsessing about goals/intentions/purpose/dharma. I’ve appreciated going through this retirement transition – I think it was helpful and necessary – but I am very, very glad to be finally coming out on the other side of it. ๐Ÿ™‚

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