A useful metaphor for an effective time management strategy for women popped into my head while on a trip to the beach this summer. I was reflecting on the subset of my clients who are particularly adept at managing their time. In spite of how busy they are, they always remain poised and organized–able to fulfill many demands and responsibilities, spend time with the people they care about, and make the time to work on improving aspects of their lives.
Of course, there are times when they feel overwhelmed or exhausted, and moments when they question how they live their lives. But for the most part, they live meaningful, enjoyable lives, to the admiration of those around them.
Thinking about these clients while on the beach, I realized that rocks, shells, pebbles, and sand, along with the buckets to put them in, are all useful metaphors for contrasting how these particularly successful individuals lead their lives with the way that others lead theirs.
The Beach Metaphor
Imagine filling a bucket to its brim with sand and pebbles. Then try putting a large rock into the bucket without spilling any of its contents. It’s impossible to do.
You could try to put the rock on top of the sand, but to move the bucket, you’d have to move very slowly so that nothing spills.
The image of a large rock balanced precariously atop a bucket full of sand reminds me of people who tell me that they’d love to find a new job, do something fun, or work on a meaningful project, but they don’t even have the time to figure out what that could be.
To illustrate what I mean, I’ll explain what the components of the beach represent in this metaphor.
Components of the Beach
On most beaches, you’ll find rocks, pebbles, shells, and, of course, sand.
In this metaphor, the rocks represent activities that you feel are truly important. Your rocks are unique to you. They could be your career, a project, or volunteer work that suits your core beliefs; a hobby that makes you feel more alive; and usually spending time with people you truly care about.
The pebbles stand for other important tasks you need to accomplish. That could include having routine dental checkups, going grocery shopping, or and other responsibilities you’re obligated to fulfill.
The shells represent special occasions. Examples include a family reunion, a vacation, a birthday party, and other events that happen intermittently. Some are planned; others may happen spontaneously. It’s important to recognize and appreciate them when they occur.
The sand represents unimportant items that may often get in your way. For some it’s the weekly staff meeting, for others it’s social media streams, and for many it’s the deluge of nonessential email.
The bucket stands for time. Because each of us gets only 60 minutes each hour, 24 hours a day, and seven days per week, everyone has the same size bucket.
How will you fill your bucket?
Designing Your Beach
If you’re dissatisfied with the way you’re living your life, your bucket is probably full of pebbles and sand, with little room for rocks and shells.
Many time management books tell you how to get more done and squeeze more into your day. They’re usually full of tips and tricks to make you more productive and efficient.
But if you want to feel happy and satisfied, you have to know how to fill your bucket:
- At most, you get only a handful of rocks at any given time.
- To maximize your satisfaction and happiness, at least two of your rocks must involve at least one of the following:
- work or an activity that you find both challenging and interesting; and
- a deep connection to people you care about.
(You can read more about these two criteria here.)
- You have to put in your rocks first, thereby making them the priority. You can decide how much time to spend on each rock in any given week, but if you don’t schedule them first, make time for them, and focus on them, your bucket can very easily become filled with sand and pebbles.
Avoiding the Sand
As time management expert Alan Lakein argues, rocks aren’t always easy to work on, so it can be tempting to tackle the pebbles and sand first. Rocks usually require what Cal Newport calls “deep” work, while pebbles represent “shallow” work. That’s why deleting emails, checking social media streams, and clearing your desk are such seductive procrastination techniques. (As a graduate student, I would do things like clean the grout in my bathroom instead of writing my dissertation!) Performing these tasks can convince you that you’ve accomplished something and even make you feel productive. But, in the end, you haven’t made progress on the important stuff and that is likely to leave you feeling frustrated or discouraged.
Just like sand that sticks to your feet and remains between your toes long after you’ve left the beach, the habit of tackling the smaller, less important tasks isn’t easy to shake. But now that you’re aware of it, it should be easier to overcome.
Knowing Your Beach
Your first step is to write down on a piece of paper what your rocks are. Don’t delay. Don’t worry about listing what your pebbles and sand represent. And unless you’re planning a special event, you don’t need to list your shells. Just focus on the rocks:
- What activities are important to you or critical to achieving what you truly desire?
- With whom do you want to spend your time and how will you deepen your connection with them?
I promise to write more on this topic soon, so please stay tuned. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think of this strategy so far.
To read more of what Stacy has to say about time management click here.