Updated on 05.21.09

Entrepreneurship In Your Spare Time: The Rocks And Sand Philosophy

Trent Hamm

A few times in the past, I’ve mentioned that I have a computer consulting business on the side and that I also work full time at my “real” job.

The question most people ask is “How do you find time for these things?” It’s great to earn money from several sources, but it’s often hard to see where the time for all of it comes from. To manage entrepreneurial tasks like these, I use a general philosophy that I’ve often seen repeated by others, the rock and sand philosophy. I was first introduced to it by Stephen Covey’s book First Things First (read my detailed review of it).

Here’s how it works. Imagine that a period of time in your life – say, a week – can be represented with a large glass jar. This jar is filled with big rocks – pieces of contiguous time that can’t be interrupted and must happen during the week – and progressively smaller rocks that represent smaller tasks that are more flexible.

When I look ahead at a coming week, I put in the big rocks first – the large chunks of time. These rocks include periods at work, periods sleeping, and so on. What tasks do you regularly do that eat up a big block of time and must be done to maintain your life?

I eventually move on to smaller and smaller things and keep adding them to the jar – they sink down and fill up the gaps between the bigger rocks. These are things like time set aside to actually write a post, time set aside to fix a computer, time set aside to read my son two books and eat supper with him and my wife, and so on. Eventually, I add sand to fill up the rest of the space. Sand refers to tiny things I can do in a minute or so of spare time that further my goals – things like jotting down a post idea or giving a call to a customer.

What’s great about this is that I find myself discarding the things that are less important. Do I really want to put a rock in that jar that represents a two hour block of vegetation in front of the television? Not really. Instead, I look for other ways to spend that time, even if it’s just reading or maybe spending time getting beaten by my wife at Wii power bowling.

I also look for ways to break down the big rocks. As I mentioned before, I try to use naps to maximize my alertness and make my schedule more flexible. I also utilize a long lunch break at work many days to take care of various tasks – I’ll go somewhere quiet and try to brainstorm ideas or knock off a few tasks that can be done near my place of work. This means I can fit pebbles and grains of sand (small tasks) in the middle of my day.

I usually use Mozilla Sunbird and GTD to keep up with all of the pebbles and grains of sand in my day. Generally, if I’m at home and have free time (outside of my planned periods for reading and spending time with my family), I’m processing the things that need done, a seemingly endless stack of things. Some of them are related to the home, some are related to The Simple Dollar, some are related to computer consulting – I just process them all together, grabbing the next thing to do when one thing gets done.

What’s the end result of all of this? I’m in the best financial position of my life, with several sources of income. I’m also never bored and I feel like my life is more enriched than ever before – the stuff I’m doing is good stuff, rather than just fluff. I enjoy recreation, but I choose things that really bring me joy rather than things that let me vegetate.

Some people describe life organization as being like a prison. I found that it’s made me feel more free – and able to accomplish more and earn more money – than I ever have before in my life.

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  1. Michelle says:

    I really apprciated your latest post, since I’m about the embark on a coaching business in addition to my full-time job (45 hours/wk). I feel confident and excited to start on this path, and ensure that my “me time” is going towards something that’s personally fulfilling.

    I’m very impressed by the napping that you do in order to get your 8 hours of sleep while remaining as productive as possible, but my main question is this: When you started, how did you get your body to respond to this? I don’t feel like I can utilize your nap schedule for my life, but I’m determined to wake up early so I can devote more time to my coaching business. However, I find myself snoozing 2-5 times, sometimes even subconsciously! Do you have any tips on waking up early and getting your brain to function at an “unusual” time?

    Thanks for your help!

  2. Brian says:

    Trent, I agree 100% with you on this.

    I also have a full time job, do business consulting on the side, and blog (albeit only for a short amount of time). People are continually amazed that there is enough time in the day to do all these things and still spend a lot of time with my wife and 2 kids. Those are the same people that spend 3-4 hours per night (and many hours on the weekend) watching television or doing other “vegetative” stuff. I prefer to do things that are challenging and that I derive a sense of fulfillment from.

    That being said, I am not denouncing those that enjoy watching television or otherwise wasting time. I think everyone is free to make of their life whatever they want to make of it. Just don’t make excuses!

  3. Trent,
    I think I’ll have to try your method pretty soon! I obviously work full time, plus 2 kids and starting an MBA this fall while writing my blog and other internet project.

    I agree that we always have several “moments of vegetation” in our day. So many times we sit in front of the TV wondering what to watch… I don’t think I’ll have time for this kind of big rocks anymore;-)

    thx for the tip!


  4. Thanks Trent, this is interesting. I spend several hours each evening split between projects and my blog. It seems like I am always working, but since it’s stuff I’m interested in, it’s also very fulfilling. I think that many people’s lives are filled with family, friends, and the ever present TV. These things alone seem like they take enough time to make it tough to get other things done.


  5. guinness416 says:

    Your day job appears to have defined hours, which helps you a lot. I never really know when I’m in for a 14 hour day, an early morning, a late night, a saturday at my desk, sudden travel commitment or getting out at 5pm. I don’t need extra cash (my leisure time is more valuable – and healthy – to me as just that) but if I did it would be incredibly difficult to work around a professional schedule.

  6. Lise says:

    “Some people describe life organization as being like a prison. I found that it’s made me feel more free.”

    Amen to that. Organization is a gift you give yourself. When I’m about to sit down in front of the TV to embark on an epic session of watching Forensic Files I try to stop and think of a better way to nurture myself.

  7. Matt says:

    The biggest problem I’ve always had with starting up a side business isn’t the time to keep it going but the time needed to get it started. The output of time to get everything lined up and moving is considerably more than continuing the venture.

    Though I guess you an simply apply the big rock approach to those tasks over a longer period of time.

  8. Jose says:

    Agree. Of note, did you notice how many people mentioned “TV” as the vegetative state? I say don’t give yourself the option, ditch it. My family and I ditched TV (literally gave them all away) a while back and the results are amazing. As parents we’re no longer tempted to melt our kids’ brains; the boys have figured out different (more constructive) ways of entertaining themselves. DW and I have more of our precious time to de-clutter our brains and life; focusing on, as you say, the big rocks. Added bonus? Cash in your pocket. I mean seriously, how many of those 300+ channels do you need/watch? Add it up, how much do you pay a month? A year? Including power rqmts, hardware, food consumption while idley sitting? You can do it!! My .02. Cheers!

  9. Amanda B. says:

    Um…Isn’t this Stephen Covey’s approach to time management?

  10. Good on ya, Trent! I do the same thing, with side income.

  11. Tom says:

    Great post. I posted some of my own experiences with moonlight computer consulting in the comments of Trent’s other post on the subject. While the Rocks and Sand approach is conceptually clean for time management, I think it is important to remember that if you are going to engage in service-oriented income activities on the side it will likely be the needs/demands of the customer that will drive your schedule, not your concept of a neatly timeboxed schedule. If you couple this with the demands of a unpredictable or challenging day job, be prepared for a harried existence…finding that right combination of peace of mind and a meaningful second income stream can be at least partially mutually exclusive and take a lot of time and effort to find the right balance.

  12. Jose says:

    I believe Amanda is right about the SC reference. Either way, I found this in the info coffers (I apologize for the length): A philosophy professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, silently he picked up a large empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks, rocks about 2″ in diameter. He then asked the students if the jar was full? They agreed that it was. So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They again agreed it was. The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. “Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this is your life. The rocks are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else. The small stuff.” “If you put the sand into the jar first, there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out dancing. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal.” “Take care of the rocks first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.” But then… A student took the jar which the other students and the professor agreed was full, and proceeded to pour in a bottle of Corona. Of course the beer filled the remaining spaces within the jar making the jar truly full. The moral of this tale is – that no matter how full your life is, there is always room for BEER.

  13. matt says:

    you forgot the end of that parable! the professor presents the rocks, pebbles, and sand metaphor, and a student comes up and pours in a beer. No matter how much you have going on in your life, there’s always room for a beer.

  14. eR0CK says:

    Hey Trent … I noticed in another thread that you ask your clients to sign a form that waives some or all level of responsibility from yourself.

    Can you post it here and have you had this disclaimer reviewed by a lawyer?

    Additionally, I looked through a few other threads and it sounds like you’re not LLC’ed, S. Corp’ed, etc.

    That being said, I’m interested to see how locked down your disclaimer is, because otherwise your wide-open for a lawsuit.

    Thanks for the post and the blog … good stuff.

  15. Time management is definitely one of the most challenging concepts for business owners and consultants in any field to fully grasp. And definitely being flexible is an important part of success at any stage of small business development.

    I have advised and spoken with a lot of computer consultants in particular looking to start their ow businesses full-time and leave their regular 9-5 operations for good, and I know many of them struggle with how to successfully moonlight in a way that will not interfere with their other job but still leave them with great moonlighting clients (that will eventually turn into long-term clients for their future business) and also a life. Determining the best time to leave a full-time job and become a full-time computer consultant can be difficult, but there is definitely a process that can lead to success.

    I also talk a lot about moonlighting as a computer consultant in my Computer Consulting Kit Blog. Thanks for your blog post!

  16. beth says:

    I’ve always liked that analogy of Covey’s. That’s about the only way I’ve managed to squeeze in time for the many things that I do. I try to always have my homework or a book or work-work with me in the car to fill in all of those little empty periods of time spent in waiting rooms, for kids’ practices to end, or for software installs to do their thing.

    Filling in those little gaps of time is about the only way to ensure nothing gets dropped between a full time job, half-time school, 2 teenage daughters with school and sports, a husband, my own sports team, and a household to run.

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