Does this keep happening to you?
You start working at 7.30 am and somewhere over the course of the morning your task list suddenly multiplies and you find yourself jumping from one fire to the next. Then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it’s 6.30 pm, you’re tired and frustrated, and you’ve realised there are another four hours of work to do before you can actually switch off for the night.
Are you feeling it right now?
You aren’t alone. To get through the huge amounts of work we’re loading ourselves up with, a lot of us live our days in this constant state of firefighting.
Ready to stop doing that? The principle I’m going to lay out for you below is something that changed my life from a scattered mind, constantly running from task to task, to a focused, organised and productive headspace that lets me switch off at night when I need to – minus the feeling of having a million things left to do.
It’s all based on an idea best illustrated by Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He has developed a fantastic metaphor for why the strategy of time blocking is so effective. He calls it The Big Rocks and I’ve illustrated his theory below to help make it clear for you. I love this theory and when I implement it (we can’t all be perfect every day!) my productivity goes through the roof!
For the purpose of this exercise, imagine an empty bowl that represents all the time you have in a day.
There are three types of tasks you can fill this bowl with:
- Sand – these represent all the tiny, small things that you do all day long: the quick email reply you needed to send right away, that document you wanted to print and that five-minute chat with a colleague. They are small brief tasks that, when combined, create a lot of sand (distraction in your day).
- Pebbles – these are the mid-sized tasks you do each day. The things that require you to focus for 10 to 30 minutes to get them completed. There are several of these in a day, but not as much as the sand.
- Rocks – These are the big, key things that require you to focus for more than half an hour at a time. They are the bulk of your work and, typically the part that makes you money or gets you closer to finishing that project you’re working on.
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The diagram below shows how, and in which order, most people typically attempt to fit all their tasks into their day (the bowl).
- Sand first – The sand is irritating and distracting – but easy to tick off. For this reason many people will plough through a bunch of sand tasks first in their day, feeling like they are ticking a lot of small things off their plate. Their bowl quickly gets filled as they move from one sand task to the next and before they know it, a few hours of their day are gone.
- Pebbles Next – People will start on the pebble-sized tasks once they either run out of sand or receive pressure to get these medium-sized tasks finished.
- Lastly Rocks – Towards the end of the day they will consider their rocks. They might have space for one or two but the majority will need to be shifted to tomorrow’s bowl. The problem is that most people already have a few rocks waiting for tomorrow’s bowl, so these additional rocks are just going to keep building up through the week.
You can see from the diagram that obviously all the rocks aren’t fitting into the bowl. By prioritising and tasks first up in the day, people neglect to consider how much time the rocks need to get done. For most people this leads to a growing feeling like they have too much on their plate because day in, day out they have to move big rocks tasks to the following day.
The bowl below contains the exact same number of rocks and sand as previously – but instead of starting the day with sand, this person has prioritised their rocks first. There is now plenty of space in the day to complete all of the rocks and get through most or even all of the pebbles and sand tasks. The only difference was that by putting the rocks in first (and blocking the time for these) we allowed the other tasks to fit in around the rocks as they could.
This is how time blocking can change the effectiveness of your day – by blocking out time for those important rocks, and providing the necessary focus for yourself, the other tasks can easily fit into the smaller spaces of time surrounding the larger tasks.
Start small. Block out one 45 minute chunk of time each morning for the big stuff. As you start to see the benefits, you’ll quickly find yourself able to block out more of those big chunks of time, and you’ll also find the discipline to use them wisely comes more easily too.