What to do When You’ve Got Too Much to Do (Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand)

All high-achievers face the same problem at some point. Too many things you want to do. And not enough hours in a day to do them all.

It can be a terrible, constricting feeling. 

Like you’re packing a suitcase for a big trip. And your suitcase is filled to the brim

But you really wanna fit a few more things in! So before you know it, you’re sitting on top of your suitcase, tugging at the zipper with all your might, as the seams holding everything together groan in protest.

The “Cram it in” Strategy Doesn’t Work

We often take the same approach in our lives that we do with our suitcases.

We already feel overwhelmed. Filled-To-The-Brim. But there’s more we want to do.

  • What about that exercise routine we wanted to build? Cram it in.
  • What about that meditation habit? Stuff it in there too.
  • And what about that passion project? Just jam it in somehow!!!!

Just writing about that makes me feel stressed.

If your best strategy for doing what you want to do in life is to cram-it-in-with-suitcase-zippers-straining…You’re simply perpetuating a cycle of stress, anxiety, worry, confusion, and burnout.

So…what can you do instead?

Dump it all out.

Start with a blank slate.

And only when the bag is truly empty can you put the pieces back in.

One by one. And in strict order of importance.

The Wise Professor: Rocks, Gravel, Sand, and Coffee

There’s this story about a professor and the jar of life.

It goes like this…

Standing at the front of his classroom, he pulls out a large empty mason jar. And he fills it with a number of large rocks.

Holding the jar up, he asks his students: “Is the jar full?”

“Yes, of course!” they respond. 

With a smile, he sets the jar back down and pulls out a container of gravel. As he dumps it into the jar, the gravel fills in the spaces between the big rocks.

Holding up the jar once again, he asks his students: “Is the jar full now?”

Seeing they’ve been fooled, they think twice: “I’m not so sure!”

Cracking an even bigger smile, the professor sets down the jar and reveals a container of sand. He dumps the sand into the jar, and it fills the space between the gravel.

Once again he asks the students: “Is this jar full?”

With a chorus of eye-rolls, they’re onto his tricks. But with the jar so densely packed, they admit that yes, the jar is full.

To which the professor laughs, and pours his mug of coffee into the jar. As the earthy liquid percolates the space between the rocks, gravel, and sand, the professor says: “NOW, the jar is full.”

The Jar of Your Life: Fill it With Intention

The professor goes on to explain his point.

The jar is meant to represent your life.

The big rocks symbolize what’s truly essential in life. The things that matter most to you.

The gravel is what’s important, but at a secondary level.

The sand represents the minutiae of life.

And the coffee? Well, there’s always room to grab a coffee with a friend.

Big Rocks First

But here’s the kicker. All these things only fit in the jar if you put them in in the right order.

If you start with the gravel and sand, you wind up trying to cram in the big rocks at the end. But they don’t fit!

Which leads you to wonder…

“How can I fit it all in?!” 

If you find yourself asking that question, you’re approaching the problem from the wrong frame of mind.

Because here’s the thing. You’ll never be able to fit it ALL in. There’s an endless supply of gravel + sand + coffee. 

So that’s why it’s important to start with the big rocks first. 

When you put the big rocks into your life first, you always take care of your biggest priorities. Even if you added nothing else to the jar, you could still call it “full”!

And THAT is how you fall asleep satisfied every night. Because you know you’re living in alignment with your priorities.

Put it Into Practice: What are Your Rocks + Gravel + Sand?

1: Identify your big rocks. For me, it’s sleep, movement (+ time outdoors), healthy eating, meditation, and loving connections with others. 

I did this exercise with four clients in the last month. And they all landed at a similar set of big rocks. Your health + energy have a disproportionate impact on the rest of your day. 

(Almost all of my clients were reluctant to admit (or simply didn’t realize) that sleep was a big rock. But after considering it, they saw that compromised sleep makes everything worse.)

2: Identify your gravel. This is important, but not as essential as the big rocks. (For me, it starts with work, then moves on to my other passions and favorite activities.)

3: Identify your sand. This stuff is a part of life, but isn’t important. (For me, it’s any activity done mindlessly.)

4: Empty out the jar of your life. Start with a blank slate.

5: Add priorities and commitments into your life, big rocks first. Begin with what’s most important. Don’t move on to the next tier of importance until you’ve completed the first!

6: Make it tangible. Put these commitments in your calendar, in the appropriate order. (e.g. I literally have “Sleep opportunity windows” + AM/PM Bookends planted on my calendar. If it’s important to me, I make the commitment.)

7: Create a Daily Wins Checklist to hold your priorities top of mind, keep yourself accountable, and celebrate your commitment to what you value. Start with a more focused DWC that only includes your big rocks! Then, expand it to other priorities.

Prioritization Matters More Than Productivity

Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, the solution is never about doing more. It’s about doing the right things. 

You don’t need a new productivity technique. You just need clearer priorities.

Just remember the professor and his jar of rocks.

Start by slowing down and emptying out your jar. (+ Embrace the obstacle that you might not feel motivated to slow down if you’re overwhelmed…)

Then, put your big rocks in first. 

When your big rocks are always in the jar first, everything else tends to fall into place.