What are your big rocks?

What are your big rocks?

By Mr Chaos on May 29, 2020 in Family, Finance

Writing about wish jars recently got me thinking about productivity (jars). Can’t wait to hang out with me at a party, can you? But that then got me thinking about how well we manage to fit our priorities and values, our big rocks, into our life jars.

The big rocks of productivity

Stephen Covey was a business author who popularized the ‘big rocks’ approach to productivity. In summary, your total available time for the next week is represented by a jar. You can fill the jar with any combination of big rocks, pebbles and sand.

The big rocks are your strategic goals – like developing new products. The sand is the minor tasks like email, unjamming the printer, and having meetings to plan the agenda for the next meeting. The pebbles fall somewhere in between.

If you want to get your big rocks into the jar, you need to put them in first. If you start with the sand and pebbles, there’s no space for the big rocks. But we often start with sand because we can build castles with it it keeps us busy, which makes us FEEL productive. The same logic makes a hamster think it’s being productive whilst running on its wheel.

Life’s big rocks

The jar and rock analogy fits well with life. We fill our jar with the things we are focusing on in our lives. The big rocks should represent our highest goals or priorities based on our values. These will be different for everyone, but could include family time, exploring the world, faith, personal well-being (exercise, sleep, healthy eating) or volunteering with non-profits.

My work career would fall into the ‘pebble’ category of importance. It’s important, but not at the same level as quality time for family. Though I appreciate that there are people for whom work is a big rock, and that’s ok. I’ve come close to experiencing this when working for organizations that have a significant purpose – like reducing malaria in Zambia.

Family time is a priority for us, particularly in the next few years, as Mrs Chaos discussed in this post. You have approximately 10 years when you when your kids really want you around. After that you’re the one fighting for their attention.

Since we have 4 kids there is way TOO much sand in our lives (equally true after a visit to the beach). Mrs Chaos and I have some disagreements about what we would put into the sand category. She ascribes higher importance to things like dusting and vacuuming. I don’t have a scale small enough for these tasks. But where we do agree is that accumulating stuff is definitely adding sand to our jar.

Finding unicorns

Build a buffer between how much you earn and how much you spend.

Someone living paycheck to paycheck can’t begin to think about their big rocks until they’ve dumped all their work pebbles into the jar. Because losing that paycheck would be disastrous. That might mean both parents giving the best 50 hours of their week to a job / commuting. Which results in sacrificing family time, hobbies, exercise, or sleep because there is simply not enough space left in their jar for all the big rocks.

The only way to get more of your bigger rocks into your jar is to build a buffer between how much you earn and how much you spend.

I realize that building a buffer is WAY more difficult if you’re a single working parent or in a lower income job, especially in the current COVID climate. But many of us use low-income levels as an excuse for not creating margin whilst regularly succumbing to the siren call of Amazon or the easy option of eating out.

Once you have enough of a buffer, you’ve got Finding Unicorn money – at least I think that’s what JL Collins means when he talks about FU money.

It means that when an unbearable boss ‘asks’ you to come in at the weekend to re-staple your TPS reports, you have the option to quit and tell him you’d rather go Find Unicorns. Or if your organization decides they want to save money by moving their office to a high-risk death star, you don’t have to move with them. And since you’ve got a financial buffer, you can take your time finding the right job.

Take time to figure out what your big rocks are.

Do you even know your big rocks?

However, a potentially bigger problem with living at your limit is that you may never have taken time to figure out what your big rocks are. After all, there’s no point spending time dreaming about big rocks if your jar is full of work pebbles and ‘keeping up with the Jones’ sand.


The bigger your financial margin, the more of your big rocks you can fit in the jar. Your best chance of fitting ALL of your big rocks into your jar is to pursue Financial Independence. You can read more about the cult movement here. It’s just a fancy phrase for building enough margin into your financial life, so that your future self will not have to work for another 40 or 50 years.  

It may involve some counter-cultural choices and not paying attention to your neighbors’ latest purchase. Ultimately it boils down to being more intentional with your spending. Is there something you really value? Well fine, spend on it – as long as you have margin! But if it doesn’t pass your big rock or pebble test – don’t spend money on it.

Trust me, your future you will thank you. (In a suitably socially distanced manner – not because of COVID-19, but because of the space time continuum of course.)

For now, I’ll leave you with a parable retold by JL Collins:

The Monk and the Minister

Two close boyhood friends grow up and go their separate ways.  One becomes a humble monk, the other a rich and powerful minister to the king.

Years later they meet.  As they catch up, the minister (in his fine robes) takes pity on the thin, shabby monk.  Seeking to help, he says:

“You know, if you could learn to cater to the king you wouldn’t have to live on rice and beans.”

To which the monk replies…

If you could learn to live on rice and beans you wouldn’t have to cater to the king.

I’m not advocating a life of rice and beans, but like JL, I think it’s worth aiming to live more like the monk than the minister, so you are able to fit all your big rocks into your life jar.

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  • Chris@TTL - reply

    Just caught your all’s story over at Millenial Revolution! Congrats. I posted a followup comment there but saw your little rock snippet and found this bigger story 🙂 Neat idea.

    Love the quote about the monk & minister too, very true! Hope Spain has gone well.

    Mr Chaos - reply

    Thanks Chris! We are really enjoying Spain – it was the right next step for us. Its not always easy to lean towards the monk and away from the minister, but we do try.

  • Baby Boomer Super Saver - reply

    Love this post! Although I’ve heard these stories before, your presentation is top notch. Just the right touch of humor, too. I’m wondering if parenting four young kids has influenced your interpretation of what FU money stands for, lol.

    Mr Chaos - reply

    I love the story of the monk and the minister. Our kids have definitely influenced our priorities, and using the financial flexibility we have to prioritize spending time with them. Thanks for the kind comments!

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