The “Big Rocks Theory” is a popular story emphasizing the importance of prioritizing what’s in your life. The story is provided below if you are not familiar with it.

A philosophy professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him. When class began, wordlessly he picked up a large empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks right to the top, rocks about 2″ 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 in to the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks. The students laughed. He asked his students again if the jar was full? They agreed that yes, it was. The professor then 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 – anything that is so important to you that if it were lost, you would be nearly destroyed. The pebbles are the other things in life that matter, but on a smaller scale. The pebbles represent things like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else. The small stuff. If you put the sand or the pebbles into the jar first, there is no room for the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your energy and time on the small stuff, material things, you will never have room for the things that are truly most important. “Take care of the rocks first – the things that really matter.”

This philosophy is significant for your life and family, but it is also highly applicable as a military leader. Military leaders are constantly overwhelmed with daily “emergencies” and distractions. Your time as a leader is finite, represented by the jar. How do you determine what to put in it and when?

  • Big Rocks. What are the big rocks to you as a leader? What are the things that define your leadership and are critical to your organization? For tactical-level military leaders, I believe big rocks include: (1) leader development of your subordinates, (2) building a professional culture within your team, and (3) accomplishing the training directly tied to your mission and vision – why you exist.
  • Pebbles. The pebbles are the things associated with the success of your team, but not necessarily tied to your mission or vision; they are important, but not necessarily priority. Within a military small unit, the pebbles may be daily/weekly tasking orders from your higher headquarters, regulation training (AR 350-1, etc.), and general administrative tasks.
  • Sand. The sand are all of the daily distractions that take leaders away from their primary objectives and consume their precious time, but add no value to the leader or the team. They tend to be the “immediate emergencies” that often occupy 50 to 75 percent of leaders’ time. The art of saying NO becomes vital as a leader. Saying no to distracting tasks assigned by your boss may not be possible, I understand. Learn to communicate your concerns and establish priorities so your boss, or higher headquarters, can understand where you are coming from. 

It is critical to prioritize what goes in your jar and place the important things, the big rocks, in first. If you allow the distractions and unimportant tasks to control your time, you’re placing the pebbles and the sand in the jar first, leaving no space for the big rocks. Do not allow pebbles and sand to overshadow your big rocks. Understand the difference between important and urgent, and focus your efforts on the former. Prioritize and be deliberate in your leader development, improving your team’s culture, and conducting the training necessary to succeed in battle. Put these big rocks on the calendar to ensure they are actualized.

When it is your time to move on as a leader, don’t let your legacy (and jar) be full of pebbles and sand.

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