I first read the illustration below in Stephen Covey’s book First Things First. It is very powerful as it pertains to the priorities of life:
One day this expert was speaking to a group of business students, and, to drive home a point, used an illustration I’m sure those students will never forget.
As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.
When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.
Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was onto him. “Probably not,” one them answered. “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”
“No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”
One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!”
“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”
You have to put the big rocks in first
The jar is your life. The big rocks are the things that matter most in life, beginning with your relationship with God, your marriage, and other important relationships.
The small pebbles are important but not near as important as the big rocks. This would include your job, exercise, finances and reading.
The sand and the water are things in life we enjoy, but in the grand scheme of things are not very important. In fact, they are often things that can be quite trivial.
So many people are convinced that to experience a full and happy life, I need to fill the jar with as much as I can. In reality, the jar (your life) can only hold so much.
If you really want to live wisely and get the most out of life, you have to prioritize correctly. You have to put the big rocks in first. Most people do not understand this. They let the gravel, sand and water become more important than the big rocks.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that values greatly the trivial pursuits of life (sand and water) and in the process we easily get carried away by the cultures’ priorities. This is why you have to decide in advance, “What comes first in my life?”
We as Christians have been called to seek first and foremost God and his will for our lives. This is to be our biggest rock. It is to go in the jar first. If we can get this right, we will become wiser as time goes by and will gain the insight to recognize what to prioritize and what to eliminate.
As the years go by, this is the only way I know how to keep the pain of regret out of our lives.
(A number of years ago I heard a sermon by Andy Stanley on priorities, which helped in writing this blog)