I am on a constant search for time management tips. I may try out a new technique and it works for a while, but eventually, the idea grows stale and I let it slide away. So when I had dinner with a friend Wednesday evening, I was ripe for more ideas to try.

My friend, Sherra Aguirre, is head of Aztec Services, Inc., an industry leader in facility services.

The company is expanding into property management and she’s committed to maintaining their high quality, environmentally responsible level of services. In a word, she’s busy. I wanted to know how she juggled her workload since I know worklife balance is also important to her.

One of my challenges, I explained, is that at the end of a workday, I often end up having completed a lot of small, but important tasks, but may never get to a major thing that is high on my list. This is frustrating and increases my stress at work and at home. I often start off with the small but important things first so that I can get them out of the way before I tackle the larger project. It’s my way of easing into the day’s work.

Sherra explained that she does the exact opposite based on her interpretation of Steven Covey’s principle of “Put the big rocks in first.” He described this principle in his widely acclaimed Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

In explaining the third habit of “Put First Things First,” Covey used the analogy of someone trying to place some big rocks, stones, and pebbles into a mason jar. If you put the pebbles and stones in first, there may not be room left for the big rocks. Put the big rocks in first, then add the stones, and last the pebbles and everything is more likely to fit. You can read the analogy here.

For an amusing video illustrating the principle, click here.

But how do you identify a big rock?

What she said next made all the difference. Steven Covey defines “big rocks” as the most important (as distinct from most urgent) activities. I had read Seven Habits when it first came out, so I felt very justified in doing the small, but important things first. As long as it was important and not merely urgent, I felt on track (ignoring the times I goofed off by just doing whatever I felt like doing.)

My friend, though, defines her “big rocks” as the hardest things she has to do that day. She said she discovered that once she takes care of those hard big rocks and gets them over with, she finds she has enough time to get everything else important done too. She chooses what is hardest by the energy she has around it. Often, what is “hardest” is also high up in importance as well.

Do the hardest thing first? Really? Part of the reason I had been doing the small things first is because the larger things were the hardest.

I was skeptical – it was difficult for me to imagine that I would have enough time to do all the important things I had to do in a day just by doing the hard things first. After all, they were – well – hard to do. I call them my “dreaded tasks.” Besides, who wants to start off their day doing the very hardest thing?

She went on to explain that we expend energy worrying about what is yet undone, and this consumes thinking and creative time. When the big hard rocks have been completed, the energy we might have spent worrying about those undone big rocks can be put into the easier tasks.

The next morning, I ran across this marvelous quote by Eric Hoffer:

“The feeling of being hurried is not usually the result of living a full life and having no time. It is on the contrary born of a vague fear that we are wasting our life. When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else — we are the busiest people in the world.”

Bingo. This is exactly what Sherra was saying, only Hoffer was referring to life choices and Sherra was talking about day-to-day choices. Both ways, the quote had a ring of truth for me. If I avoid doing a dreaded task, it grows bigger and bigger in my head. By the end of the day I feel vaguely dissatisfied, no matter how much I have accomplished because I didn’t get the one thing done that I thought should be done. I also have the vague feeling of having wasted time by chickening out.

Moral of the story: On Friday, I put in my big rocks first including one really onerous task. I’m pleased to say that by the end of the day, I felt pretty satisfied with what I had accomplished.

1. How do you prioritize what to do first on any given day? Do you do:

  • the most urgent things first?
  • the easiest things first?
  • whatever comes to mind?
  • the hardest thing first?

2. How does this approach work for you?

Reference: Covey, S. R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Filed under: achieving your goalsconscious use of selfmaking positive changes

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