big rocks in a bucket

What are your big rocks for 2022?

The one part of the time bucket analogy that works is to do your best to put the big rocks first, so the less important things either fill the spaces between the big rocks or slip over the edges of the bucket and go undone.

Let’s be honest. The next two months are full. Full! Thanksgiving preparations are underway, if you live in the United States. Travel. Gifts. Advent. Hanukkah. Christmas. Boxing Day. Kwanzaa. The ever popular National Fruitcake Day, the day you give your fruitcakes away, will be here before you know it. Then New Year’s Eve will arrive.

Authors need to think ahead.

Amongst all the hustle and bustle, take an hour or two to sip some hot chocolate and think ahead to 2022. Don’t let 2022 arrive like a surprise visit from your least favorite uncle. Get ahead of it with a short planning session.

What are big rocks?

“Putting the big rocks in first” is a concept made famous by Stephen Covey who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. To be honest, I have started his book several times and never finished it.

One of the big demonstrations Covey made famous is a large, clear bucket which represents all your time. Sand, gravel, and rocks represent the least important to most important things you need to do. In the demonstration, if you put the little things, the least important things, in first, then there’s no room for the most important things, the big rocks.

There are problems with the “Big Rocks” idea.

The object lesson is to put the big rocks in first. The teaching then goes that there’s room between the big rocks for all the smaller rocks, and then the sand can fill the smaller crevices. I disagree. There is not room in the bucket for everything you want to do. It’s a great demonstration—very memorable—but there’s a huge problem with the analogy.

The first problem is that none of us know know the size of our bucket. We know we have a finite amount of time, but we don’t know how much time we have. The bucket represents our life, but we don’t know the final amount it holds until the end. Also, we don’t have limitless energy and vitality and motivation; that energy differs from person to person.

Empty spaces are important.

The second problem is that the empty spaces in the bucket are important too. It isn’t healthy to fill all the space between the big rocks. We need margin in our lives. We need rest. We need communion. We need reflection.

The big rocks model implies there is time for all of the big rocks and all of the sand and gravel too. You cannot have it all. Ceaseless activity is terrible for the soul.

The big rocks morph into bigger rocks.

Finally, the big rocks demonstration makes it seem possible to fit everything in, but the big rocks are not discrete, measurable tasks. The big rocks, the really important aspirations in your life, morph over time into bigger rocks. They grow to fill the available space.

If you have children, then generally speaking, they become an enduring source of effort and emotional toil. Family represents one of the biggest big rocks, as it should.

When you enter a profession, then your vocation requires you to perform a host of activities to stay relevant and to build your skills and qualifications. The same is true for authors. Your backlist grows, there are more tasks to manage, and the industry is always changing.

The big rocks are not discrete; they are continuous, ongoing parts of everyday life.

Does time management exist?

Our time is finite. It is precious. We cannot manufacture more time or buy it or borrow it. We only have so much, and we don’t even know how much time we have left. I’m not trying to be morbid, but let’s be real.

There is no such thing as time management; there is only task management.

We have been fed this false narrative about managing time. The idea of time management is garbage. It’s nonsense. You cannot manage time.

You can track time and document what you did with it. But you cannot hold it still or hoard it or save it up because time is like the wind; you feel it slipping by, but you cannot keep it from moving on.

What about multitasking?

Multitasking is also an illusion. You can switch between tasks, but seriously? The multitasking term originated in the 1960s and applied to computers. Even a single CPU can still only perform one task at a time. Multitasking in such a machine is really super fast task switching. Multi-core computers, with multiple CPUs, perform separate tasks simultaneously.

Human multitasking, actually performing two or more tasks at a time, is not a real thing; what you are describing is task switching. You can talk to your kids while you walk in the park together, but I’m talking about work, getting tasks done. You are either filling in the spreadsheet or writing an email.

There is some evidence that humans can monitor many streams of stimulus at the same time, like smelling a fire, hearing shouts, sensing heat, and seeing the flames. That’s why a parent suddenly notices when things get too quiet. It’s a matter of survival. But I digress.

You can also combine motor activities with perceptual ones, like driving a car while listening to this podcast. But add handling another device while you drive is dangerous because you are not multitasking; you are task switching.

Some people are pretty good at task switching, but for optimal results, it is best to give all your concentration to one task until it is done or reach a good stopping place so you can easily switch back and forth. An example of task switching is the order taker at McDonald’s who is also taking payment at the window, but, how many times a day does the order taker get the orders wrong?

We have lots of distractions. We have so many worries. We fill an incredible number of roles every day: provider, caregiver, cook, and bottle washer, parent, spouse, child, friend, professional, author, creator, and so forth. And each of our roles comes with a bunch of tasks, some necessary and some not so much.

Why are we still talking about big rocks?

The one part of the time bucket analogy that works is to do your best to put the big rocks first, so the less important things either fill the spaces between the big rocks or slip over the edges of the bucket and go undone. And that’s okay. They weren’t important anyway. The hardest part is deciding which parts of your life are the big rocks.

Deciding means cutting things out of your life. By choosing to emphasize certain things as most important, you are cutting off other options. If you don’t choose, then time wasting activities and distractions will fill your days and your life.

Since you cannot stop time or manage it, then you must manage your tasks.

  • Decide which tasks or activities are necessary and most important.
  • Divide big projects into small chunks.
  • Extinguish unnecessary busy work.
  • Streamline your systems.

Manage the tasks. You must consciously decide what is most important to you.

Is it important to you to write a book by this time next year? If so, then a cargo ship of tasks goes with that decision.

Plan for that time and block it out on your calendar. Just know this: planning is essential because it sets your mind to work, but your plans will change to accomodate real life.

That was a very philosophical, white tower lecture, wasn’t it? Circling back, I see 2022 approaching, and I am making plans. 2021 was full of big changes for me, but I want to reset. My question for you is: What is your “Big Rock” as an author for 2022? I would love to know.

Choose one big rock for your author life. Make it the one that is most important to you. Plug it in on your calendar. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago in Episode 10, find ways to reduce friction around that time you have scheduled to spend on that project.

Can I suggest a few things to consider?

If you are in the middle of a project, plan to finish it.

If you are nearing the end of a project, look up from your work long enough to make a preliminary decision about what is next for you.

If you are not working on a project, choose one to pursue.

Writers write.

It is my belief that authors need to have an active project going. It counts if you are planning, researching, outlining, or writing down the beats.

If a novel is too overwhelming for you right now or you are fresh out of ideas, go with flash fiction or short stories. If you’ve been away from story writing for a long time, then write to a new prompt every day until inspiration strikes.

What is your big rock as an author for this or next year? It is okay to have more than one.

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