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When trying to demonstrate how best to approach a laundry list of tasks, many productivity gurus will use a demonstration called ‘big rocks first’. It goes a little something like this…

To start with, said guru will show you an empty jar and tell you that they want to fill it with rocks, stones and sand. To start with, they will try and fill it by putting the small items in first and then progressively adding the larger stones. First they will fill the bottom with water and sand. Then they’ll pour in a bunch of pebbles, then they will put in some large rocks. Lo and behold, the large rocks will sit on top of the pebbles and sand on the bottom and they won’t go in. Oh dear.

Next they’ll take the approach of adding the ‘big rocks first’. Now they’ll put in the large rocks, the sprinkle in some pebbles and a little sand before finally pouring on the water. As if by magic, the sand, pebbles and water will now settle in around the large stones and thus more will fit into the jar.

What Does it All Mean?

The argument that these experts are trying to make with this demonstration is that completing the biggest tasks first will allow you more time and energy to complete the smaller tasks. Doing big tasks at the start of the day/year when you have lots of time, energy and resources will allow you to do a good job. Then at the end you can ‘fit in’ the smaller tasks when you get the time and without needing the same amount of energy or focus.

Is it True?

So this is a nice little visual demonstration but it’s important to remember that metaphors do not always reveal truth about unrelated topics. Put simple: the times on your business to-do list are not rocks and nor is your day a jar. In some cases similar rules will apply, but not always.

Sometimes you see, it can make sense to complete easier tasks first in order to prevent yourself from procrastinating and putting off work. In other cases, some small tasks like making calls might be causing you stress and preventing you from focusing in which case it might be better to do those first.

By and large, the ‘big rocks first’ approach has a lot going for it, but you should assess each case on its individual merits – sometimes smaller jobs do benefit from being ticked off quickly.