eliminating the little rocks


i once spoke to a roomful of teenagers on priorities.  i shared this story (which i believe originated with stephen covey):

a university professor was addressing his new group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will never forget. as he stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers he said, “okay, time for a quiz” and he pulled out a one-gallon, mason jar and set it on the table in front of him. he also 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 yelled, “yes.”

the professor replied with a little smile, “really?”

he reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. 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 asked the group once more, “is the jar full?”

by this time the class was on to him. “probably not,” one of them answered.

“good!” he replied. he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. he started dumping the sand in the jar and it went into all of the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. once more he asked the question, “is this jar full?”

“no!” the class shouted. this time, he said, “well done.” then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. then he looked at the class and asked, “can anyone tell me the point of this illustration?”

one student in the front row 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 in 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.

what then, are the ‘big rocks’ in your life? since becoming minimalist, we have been able to identify the big rocks in our lives — our kids, our friends, our faith, our goals, and our influence.  becoming minimalist is about identifying the big rocks, putting them in the jar, and intentionally eliminating the little rocks.

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Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. says

    hmm, the way i heard this story is that the last thing to go in was beer and the moral of the story was “there’s always room for beer” but i admit i like this much better. and it’s a simple and brilliant idea we often forget.

  2. says

    I believe this story is older than Covey, I think I’ve read a 18th century version with cannon balls, buckshot, sand and water. I can’t remember the moral of that story – it may have been about perception versus reality – but I like the moral of this story better.

  3. Sara says

    So glad I found your blog!

    I have a small family, so I am really enjoying reading about your adventures with children.

    I love Covey! First things First is my most read book, together with Simple Abundance.

    Thanks for putting your thoughts to words so you can help us all.

    Oh, I read a great book recently called Simplicity and Success by Bruce Elkin. Its all about thinking about what you want to create in your mind and then creating it. So rather than purging your wardrobe because its bulging with stuff, you think about how you want it to look and create that. Much more positive way of looking at it I thought.

    Sara (Sydney Australia)

  4. says

    Ya when I tell that story, I use beer instead of water. I know, terrible. But I love the story.. and I think I may actually do the demonstration of this one day soon for my son. It’s a great visual representation of how to live, and make sure you don’t forget the important stuff.

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