The Hidden Holes: Revisiting Rocks and Sand

Let me run you through my schedule for today, just using a simple example.

I wake up at 6 AM to shower and make sure the kids have everything they need for school. At 6:45, I wake them up and get them started on their day with breakfast and a hug before they head off to school. By about 7:45, they’re on the bus, so I devote a couple hours to writing while my mind is still sharp.

I have a teleconference for personal finance writers at 10:30, so that book-ends my writing session, and I follow that with a working lunch at noon.

From 1 to 2, I have another short window for writing, then I squeeze in some exercise before my children start arriving home, at which point I take two of them to taekwondo practice (making sure, somewhere in there, that their uniforms are clean) and one of them to piano practice.

Somewhere in there, supper is also prepared, usually thanks to the beauty of a slow cooker.

If my wife has a singing event (I’m not sure whether she does), I start shepherding all of the children through their nighttime routines at 7:30, with all of them in bed with their stories read to them by 8:30, after which I attempt to clean up some of the disaster that’s hit the house during the day.

Ideally, I can squeeze in an hour for reading each day to keep my mind active, and I usually need at least one evening hour for reading emails and maybe writing a bit more.

That’s a pretty packed day. I never really stop doing something productive during a given day. It also doesn’t cover the days and evenings in which I have a community responsibility or a regular event going on.

I get all of these things done due to several factors, but there are three elements that really stand out above the rest: a good calendar that I trust, a series of to-do lists that I also trust to have everything I need to do on them, and a weekly period where I think about what I’m doing with my time and whether it makes sense. That’s not new information to my long-time readers, of course.

Even with all of that planning, I’ve found that there are still a lot of holes in my day-to-day use of time. I’ll find myself burning time needlessly, doing things like making extra trips to town or going from the basement to the upstairs and back during a ten minute period.

Reflecting on that led me back to something I once learned from Stephen Covey: the idea of “rocks” and “sand.”

To sum it up, the things we fill our day with are either rocks or pebbles or sand. Rocks are things that require continual focus or require us to be in a specific place for a specific period of time. Pebbles are like smaller rocks – they require a smaller piece of focus and maybe don’t require that long of a sustained period. Sand is the little things in life, like putting the sea salt container back in the cupboard.

The biggest mistake I make in my life – and it’s one we all do quite frequently – is letting the “rocks” block the “sand.”

I’ll give you an example. One example of “sand” in my life is reading. I can devote just a minute or two to it throughout the day and I can do it almost anywhere. On the other hand, driving my kids to taekwondo practice is an example of a “rock” – I have to be in that vehicle for that period of time.

I could let the rock block the sand by sitting there listening to a music station. Or, I could let the sand flow through and listen to an audiobook (my children are usually pretty focused on their way to taekwondo, so they’re quiet no matter what’s happening).

Another example: if I’m doing laundry and need to get it done by 3:00, the laundry becomes a “rock.” I have to be in the basement at a certain time to move the laundry to the dryer, then to pull out the clothes and fold them. On the other hand, carrying dishes from my office (where I often eat lunch) to the main floor is pure “sand,” so I’ll just sit them off to the side and keep focusing on my work until it’s time to get the laundry, then I’ll carry them downstairs.

These are both little things, but they’re little things that really start to add up if you find a lot of them in your life. It’s really no different than figuring out ways to get more value from your purchases at the store.

Over the last month, I’ve been practicing a new version of the “ten second rule.” Whenever I’m going to do something that’s going to take more than thirty seconds or so, I stop for ten and ask myself if there isn’t a more efficient way to do this. Is this a “sand” task and, if so, is there a way to make it flow around the “rocks” in my life more easily?

Just by stopping for a little bit, I’ve found lots of little ways to save time. Then, after that, they become the natural way of doing things because they simply make more sense than the way I was doing it before.

It’s just like frugality. A little bit of forethought about what you’re spending your money on can quickly lead you to more effective and efficient uses for your money. Your spending has some “rocks” in it – big things you have to spend your money on – but a lot of your spending is “sand.” It’s pretty flexible. Frugality is all about finding out how to get as much sand in the jar (our budget) as possible, with that extra space used for savings or for eliminating debt.

When you come across a potential hole in your life, take a few seconds and ask yourself whether this is a rock or whether this is sand. If it’s sand, ask yourself if there isn’t a better approach to doing it. The few seconds you spend thinking can end up saving you a surprising amount of time, especially over the long run.

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