Principles for personal achievement and success: Napoleon Hill on getting done what you most want to do

Most people I know feel time-pressured and I’m no exception. Because of this, I continuously seek out tips for organizing my work to increase my sense of personal achievement and success. Here it is near the end of the semester – only two more weeks of classes — and I find that yet again, I am spending my time mainly on what’s urgent rather than on what’s most important to me.  It has happened for me this way every November-December for the last umpteen years as the crush of end of the semester school work takes up more and more of my time. Case in point: this is my first blog post in two weeks even though it’s important to me and I enjoy it.

Put Your Big Rocks in First

A while ago, I wrote a post about how Sherra Aquirre, a friend of mine, prioritizes her tasks. She’s head of Aztec Services, Inc., an industry leader in facility services, and as you might guess, has a lot on her plate. We were talking about how we organized our work and Sherra said one of her tactics is to rely on Steven Covey’s principle of “Put the big rocks in first.”

The idea is this: if you fill a jar with the big rocks first, you will still have room for the small rocks because they settle into the crevices between the big rocks.  Reverse the process and the small rocks may fill up the bottom of the jar, leaving little room for all of the remaining big rocks. For a video illustrating the principle, click here.

In reminding me of this principle, Sherra explained that for her, the big rocks are the hardest tasks.  Prior to talking with Sherra, I had thought of “hard tasks” as the most important tasks, not the most difficult.  As she talked, however, I realized that she was right – for me the big rocks were the things I dreaded doing.

The very next day, I woke up and started with my most difficult task. I was amazed with how good I felt once it was done and with how much energy that relief gave me for my other tasks that day.  For a few weeks afterward, I began my day doing my most dreaded tasks with excellent results.

Over time, though, the novelty eroded. So, here I am back in my old habit of beginning my day with what is most immediate and easy to do while letting the big rocks—my dreaded tasks–build up.

Getting Rid of Old Habits Isn’t Easy

This is predictable. Old habits are hard to break and under stress, we tend to revert to the familiar, no matter how ineffective. Researchers have estimated that it can take from 3 months to 2 years to retrain the brain to adopt a new habit, depending on how entrenched the old habit is.

Small wonder that under the press of classes on top of my regular work, I have let the “big rocks first” strategy fade away.   As Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa International, put it: “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.”

Law of Success to the Rescue

Unexpectedly, a door has been opened by Napoleon Hill, author of the longtime best-selling book Think and Grow Rich. I am reading Hill’s extensive treatise, The Law of Success, which he wrote in 1929 prior to Think and Grow Rich after interviewing 500 highly successful people of his time.  A basic principle of the book is that our lives reflect what we have attracted into it.

Skeptics who decry “the law of attraction” as hocus-pocus don’t realize just how well-supported are its principles by behavioral science today.  Napoleon Hill’s interpretation of the Law of the Attraction is not think positive thoughts and things will magically appear in your life. Rather, to make the law of attraction work for you, you have to work for it. I have written about this in previous posts, beginning with “The Secret as a Voluntary Behavioral Modification Technique.”

So what does Napoleon Hill recommend to those of us with more work to do than we believe we have time to do it in?

First he explains that we must become really clear about our “definite chief aim” – what is it that we really want to do.  My definite chief aim has remained unchanged for the last two years.  Since the publication of Reframing Change, my major goals have been to share the concepts of Leading Consciously as widely as possible and to innovate in this work. Organizational clients and students have reported amazing successes to me through applying the Leading Consciously skillsets. Their stories are heartwarming and keep me motivated and committed to doing more and better.

According to Hill, once we know our definite chief aim, the next step is to go into action to bring the definite chief aim into reality.  Hill’s law of attraction, then, requires that we go beyond “I wish” thinking.  Rather, our dreams are only dreams until we bring to them to fruition through action.

So far so good.  I am up to Lesson 13 on Cooperation in the Law of Success, so I knew that Hill was a fervent advocate of taking action on our dreams to achieve success.  Then, last night, I read a passage that made time momentarily stand still:

To understand how to become active requires understanding of how not to procrastinate.

These suggestions will give you the necessary instructions:

First: Form the habit of doing each day the most distasteful tasks first. This procedure will be difficult at first, but after you have formed the habit you will take pride in pitching into the hardest and most undesirable part of your work first.

Second: Place this sign in front of you where you can see it in your daily work, and put a copy in your bedroom, where it will greet you as you retire and when you arise: “Do not tell them what you can do; show them!”

Third: Repeat the following words, aloud, twelve times each night just before you go to sleep: “Tomorrow I will do everything that should be done, when it should be done, and as it should be done. I will perform the most difficult tasks first because this will destroy the habit of procrastination and develop the habit of action in its place.”

Fourth: Carry out these instructions with faith in their soundness and with belief that they will develop action, in body and in mind, sufficient to enable you to realize your definite chief aim.

— Napoleon Hill, Law of Success, 1929, Excerpt from Lesson 13


I read and re-read that passage several times, amazed at that Hill had predated Covey in recognizing the benefits of putting in the hard rocks first.

Hill, however, was adding a deeply insightful aspect that had not occurred to me before.  Doing the easiest tasks first is really a form of procrastination.  Every time I do the easy thing first, I am postponing doing the harder task.  I may congratulate myself for getting things done, but I am also reinforcing procrastination — avoiding those difficult tasks that will bring me closer to my definite chief aim.  In short, doing the easiest task first can be a form of self-deception, an illusion of productivity, if the easiest tasks fill up the jar and there’s no room left by the end of the day for the hard rocks.

This morning I woke up committed to doing the hardest tasks first.  And I did them. Now that I know that I am breaking a habit of procrastination as well as moving closer to my definite chief aim, I’m even more motivated to make this principle work for me.  Behavioral science tells me that it may take at least three months for doing difficult tasks first to become a habit and that I may relapse several times along the way.  I don’t plan to let that deter me.  I’ll keep you posted.


1. Do you do your easiest or hardest tasks first?

2. Which principles for achievement and success have worked well for you?


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


  1. Carole Marmell


    We all love the image of putting the big rocks in first… then the pebbles… then the sand… then the water. The imagery certainly helps grasp the idea.

    But when it comes to human services, it’s way too simplistic. Some thoughts:

    1) It assumes that the list of tasks for the day is set in the morning. Not so. People’s needs come up without warning, students require help now, family arrives unexpectedly from out of town.

    2) It does not account for adjustments in perception. What looks like a big rock turns out to be sand. The pebble becomes a large, jagged rock.

    3) Emotions need a break. If I tried to deal with my difficult issues one after another, I would crash. I find that mixing the easy stuff with the rocks gives me enough breathing space to continue.

    Given all that, I agree that spending the whole day dreading and avoiding the rocks can sap your energy for everything else.

    • Jean L.


      Carole, I regret the delay in responding. I am almost through grading, so I’m gearing back up again.
      In any case, to respond to your comments —
      1. What are you are saying about human services in your first point is also true in the private sector — or at least it happens to my organizational clients. They plan one type of day and an emergency erupts somewhere in the field or in another department.
      2. Your second point is absolutely true — my big rock in the morning may turn out to be a smooth stone by midday. I think that this is part of the value of this approach. It’s about how we feel about what we say we want to get done. The goal is for us to get the hard stuff out of the way, however shifting the definition of what is “hard” may be.
      3. Now your third point — mixing the easy with the hard — is something I hadn’t thought about. In thinking about it, when I consciously do the hard rocks first (I’m still not consistent with it), I do intersperse things like phone calls etc in between. thanks for pointing that out.

      Thanks for your comments.

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