You may be familiar with this rocks and sand story.
There are many variations of this story. You might be more familiar with the version of “Big Rocks” relating to time management, as demonstrated in this video:
I’d heard the story back in college and hadn’t given it much thought until recently when I was talking to Ana, my health coach and nutritionist, about priorities, goals and how I spend my free time. We’ve been getting my health in order, tackling digestive issues and eating habits. I keep saying I’m going to get back into yoga, and I keep finding excuses to not just incorporate yoga into my life.
She then told me her version of the big rocks story and that was that one of her college professors came into their classroom one day with a bucket of sand and a bag of oranges. He proceeded to do what the woman in the video above does, filling an empty vase with sand. Then he tries to stack a bunch of oranges in the vase and fails. After he dumps out the sand and starts over, fitting half a dozen oranges in the vase, he then pours all of the sand back in, and it all fit nicely in the vase.
She explained that the sand is everything we do during the day, and that the oranges represent the most important things in our lives. She gave me a homework assignment: she wanted me to figure out what my oranges were. What gives my life meaning? What brings me undeniable joy? What do I find myself working towards day in and day out? What are my reasons for waking up every single day?
That’s a big question to think about: what drives you? If you were a character in a book, what core characteristics would your author make sure drive your actions in every scene? What defines you as a person?
I had recently had a similar conversation with my TalkSpace counselor, but in sort-of-the-reverse. She has asked me to explore what my core challenge was, what one thing do I struggle with, which might be a root cause of much of my anxiety and stress. I’d found that thought exercise useful, so I was very much looking forward to identifying my organges.
It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be though! I’ve always been fairly reflective, having journaled compulsively for over a decade, and while I’ve spent many years thinking deeply about personal beliefs and making plans, I can’t say I’ve truly examined the reasons underlying all of the things I want to do.
After much thought, I drew out my oranges to share with Ana at our next meeting, and put them aside. When she asked me about them, and I spoke out loud about the things that drive me, I started making connections I’d never made before and I started to feel revved up and excited as I talked to her. It felt like I’d made a real discovery about my desires and motivations.
I’m happy to share my oranges with you here:
- to protect and care for my family financially, physically, emotionally
- to live a long, healthy life
- to always be creating in a non-work capacity
- to always be learning and expanding my world-view to be a better citizen
Making a list of the things I wanted to do in life and my small goals, and organizing them, helped narrow down the motivation behind everything I want to do and nearly everything on my 40 Before 40 list. All of the places I want to go, stories I want to hear, information I want to absorb. All of the places I want to take my family, experiences I want to give my family. All of the things I’m too nervous, scared, unhealthy to do now that I want to do in the future. It all comes down to exploring the world with the people I love, and everything falls into one of those four categories above.
After I finished sharing with Ana, she then asked me how I could prioritize the oranges? Right now, a lot of sand comes first because of the things I have to do for work (email, presentations, meetings) or that I feel compelled to do because I should (laundry, weed pulling, litter scooping, organizing). By the time the end of the day comes around, the oranges get shoved aside and I just want to sit on the couch and watch TV or read.
That’s when she gave me a new homework assignment (I was always that kid who loved homework haha). Every single day I had to make a list of everything I needed to do (or thought I needed to do). This would include work tasks, domestic tasks, and the things I wanted to have the time and energy to do, such as yoga or reading or writing or studying Spanish. Then, I had to circle every single item that related to an orange. That was all I had to do, for a few days. Merely circle the items that related to the oranges, and start thinking about how I could prioritize those things.
It was overwhelming to see all of the things I WANTED to do (or wanted to want to do) and didn’t have or make time for. I’ve been spending so much mental energy working on my eating habits and surviving this elimination diet that I just didn’t feel like I had the bandwidth to add more things that I should be doing and I was starting to feel guilty about it.
So then we came up with a plan. Instead of trying to think about prioritizing all of the little things that related to the big things, every day I would pick ONE small thing that works towards one of the oranges, and only worry about doing that one small thing that day. In addition to all of the sand, of course.
This has been working! For the last couple weeks I’ve made my daily list of to do’s, and instead of adding ALL the things I want to do, I add just one orange-related goal. Maybe it’s doing 5 sun salutations when I wake up. Maybe it’s finish that Mexico blog. Maybe it’s just making a list of all of the things I need to do to plan my BFF’s wedding shower. But whatever it is, it’s just one small thing that relates to one of my big oranges. And every day for the last week and a half, I have been successful in checking that thing off my list.
You know how people always say you should look for the forest through the trees? I say, for the big important goals, you should look for the trees through the forest. A forest is big and daunting, full of darkness, creatures, spider webs, etc. And you won’t want to enter the forest at all. But if you just look at the first tree — make a list of what needs to be done, or buy the card stock to print the invitations — then it’s not so daunting. And you should pat yourself on the back for that first step. Then look at the next tree. Writing out what needs to go on the party invitations. Then looking up design inspiration and free vector files. Then before you know it, you’ve spent six hours designing something that you really like and totally knocked five or six items off of the main list. Take your big goal and break it down into smaller, actionable and reachable goals, and check them off your list to see all of the progress you’re making. Soon, you’ll be halfway into that forest and realize it wasn’t so daunting after all.
This past weekend I changed up my method: instead of just writing down ONE orange-related activity, I wrote down 3 per day. It’s the weekend, after all. I didn’t have a work day to get in the way of my productivity! :-p And I hit most of my goals!
This week, one of my small actions is going to be this: begin a collage wall in my office. And at the very center of it will be my doodle of my oranges as reminder of what should be at the center of my days.
What are your big rocks or oranges? How do you prioritize the things that matter most to you without letting the sand get in the way? What actions are on your orange to do list?