Why don’t we do the important things ?

big rocks

Today, some lessons from yours truly, then Stephen Covey and finally Seth Godin.

About what ? The fact that most leaders spend the vast majority of their time working IN their business not ON, their business.

All of us have things we need to DO, yet when we have our “Leader” hat on, the role is to be “keeper of the vision” then keep complete focus on ensuring everyone you lead is moving in that direction. “Coach, don’t play” is the adage here.

One granular area, therefore, that I’ve often coached leaders around is their “to do” list. I start by putting it to them that the things on that list fall into three categories :


Urgent and Important


When I ask them where they spend their time, the answer is always in the order I showed here. In short, this tends to bring a realisation that they don’t spend anywhere near enough time on the IMPORTANT stuff.  They start with the fire-fighting, the urgent stuff, then the stuff that is still urgent but perhaps has more long term value. The important stuff just sits there.

Big Rocks – Stephen Covey

One tip is to try the “Big Rocks” method. I was taught to “never make a point without telling a story, so here is the story as told by Stephen Covey :

One day this expert was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration I’m sure those students will never forget. After I share it with you, you’ll never forget it either.

As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was onto him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”

“No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!”

“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

Seth Godin adds an angle !

Very recently, the masterful Seth Godin expressed this a different way. I will share his blog and then unapologetically use it to support others in the future !

Fun, urgent or fear-based

Most of what we do at work all day is one of these three.

Fun: It’s engaging, it gives us satisfaction, people smile.

Urgent: Someone else (or perhaps we) decided that this paper is on fire and it has to be extinguished before anything else happens.

Fear-based: Most common of all, the things we do to protect ourselves from the fear we’d have to sit with if we didn’t do them.

Not on this list: important.

A day spent doing important work is rare indeed. Precious, too.

Also published on Medium.