Are you dealing with the Rocks or the Sand?

We so often complain about how busy we are and that there is not enough time for everything. But what is it that you are actually focusing on? Are you including all the things that are important and necessary for your health and wellbeing? If you are, then you will be living a life that is meaningful and leads to optimal health and wellbeing. If you are not, you will merely be filling your days with frantic busy-ness on a path to physical and mental illness.

This well-known story will inspire you to think about what you are spending your time doing.

Rock Pebbles Sand 1
Sand, Rock, Pebbles v Rock Pebbles Sand

The Story

This story appears in many forms, some incorporate the fourth element – water, and some don’t. However, its original source is unknown. So consider the story to be a metaphor instead of an actual person who said the following:

There once was a philosophy professor who was giving a lecture. In front of him, he had a big glass jar, a pile of rocks, a bag of small pebbles, a tub of sand and a bottle of water.

He started off by filling up the jar with the big rocks and when they reached the rim of the jar he held it up to the students and asked them if the jar was full. They all agreed, there was no more room to put the rocks in, it was full.

“Is it full?” he asked.

He then picked up the bag of small pebbles and poured these in jar. He shook the jar so that the pebbles filled the space around the big rocks. “Is the jar full now?” he asked. The group of students all looked at each other and agreed that the jar was now completely full.

“Is it really full?” he asked.

The professor then picked up the tub of sand. He poured the sand in between the pebbles and the rocks and once again he held up the jar to his class and asked if it was full. Once again the students agreed that the jar was full.

“Are you sure it’s full?” he asked.

He finally picked up a bottle of water and tipped the water into the jar until it soaked up in all the remaining space in the sand. The students laughed.

The professor went on to explain that the jar of rocks, pebbles, sand and water represents everything that is in one’s life.

The Explanation

The jar represents your life.

The rocks represent the most important things that have real value – your health, your family, your partner. Those things that if everything else (the pebbles and the sand) was lost and only they remained, your life would still have meaning.

The pebbles represent the things in your life that matter, but that you could live without. The pebbles are certainly things that give your life meaning (such as your job, house, hobbies and friendships), but they are not critical for you to have a meaningful life. These things often come and go, and are not permanent or essential to your overall well-being.

The sand (and water) represents everything else – the small stuff. Material possessions, chores and filler things such as watching television or browsing social media sites. These things don’t mean much to your life as a whole and are likely only done to get small tasks accomplished or even to fill time.

The metaphor here is that if you start with putting sand into the jar, you will not have room for rocks or pebbles. This holds true with the things you let into your life. If you spend all of your time on the small and insignificant things, you will run out of room for the things that are actually important.

The Lesson

Make room for what’s important.

Take care of the rocks first – the things that really matter and are critical to your long-term wellbeing and happiness. If you deal with the big issues first by putting the rocks in the jar first, the small issues can still fall into place. However, the reverse is not true.

  • Identify the important things in life (i.e. set your priorities).
  • Set aside the time you need to work on them. This is where your focus should be in order to live a meaningful life (without over-obligating yourself).
  • Then you can fill in the pebbles and sand, knowing it’s ok to procrastinate a little on these things because they are not so important.


Article by Claire Newton

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