Career Column

Filling the Jar: Lesson in Time Management

William McAdoo
Post-Doctoral Fellow, AstraZeneca


magine a glass jar, with its empty space representing all of the time in our life. Just as there are 24 hours in a day or 365 days in a year, the volume inside this jar is finite.

First, place four to five large rocks in the jar. These represent the major time commitments in our lives: family, health, careers, major work projects, and (often most overlooked) sleep. Accordingly, these rocks take up the majority of space in the jar.

Next, pour a handful of pebbles into the jar. Imagine them filling in the spaces between the larger rocks. These pebbles represent other time commitments that are relatively less important than the large rocks. Depending on the individual, these pebbles represent things like catching up with friends, brunch, hobbies, exercising, and/or volunteering. At this point, the jar looks quite full. Between the rocks and the pebbles, there is considerably less empty space in the jar.

The next addition is sand, which fills the jar to the brim. The sand fills the nooks and crannies between the rocks and pebbles. Sand represents all the distractions in our lives— busy work, idle web surfing, filling out expense reports or time cards, unproductive meetings, booking personal or work travel, circular email chains, and daydreaming. These distractions have the propensity to fill every gap of “free” time throughout our day.

You might pause here and exclaim, “Expense reports and time cards must get done, and those aren’t distractions!” The point is they can act like distractions since they are not high priority items; nobody has ever gotten a promotion for an excellent expense report. An efficient way to tackle these items may be during spare moments or “transitions” throughout the day. For example, if you are waiting five minutes for everyone to call into a meeting, resist the urge to check your Facebook timeline and work on an expense report instead!
Now, imagine we reversed the order in which the jar was filled. This time, sand would fill up the entire jar before we could consider putting in the rocks or pebbles. The lesson here is that distractions, when not properly prioritized, can usurp all your energy and leave little or no time for more important things.

This analogy highlights that you must fit your work life and personal life all in the same jar. The challenge lies in maintaining a fragile balance by prioritizing your work life in a way that creates space for the rocks pebbles, and sand to all fit.

Many great historical thinkers spent their entire lives pondering and perfecting time management. Da Vinci was known for taking 20-minute naps every four hours to maximize his working day and Ben Franklin is credited with the phrase “time is money.” Today, there are numerous resources and books devoted entirely to time management.

One expert time manager, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, famously said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Distinguishing between important and urgent tasks is an imperative to learning effective task prioritization and time management. Eisenhower meant that urgent tasks, those requiring immediate action, are generally reactive, and result in a hurried, narrowly focused response. In contrast, important tasks are proactive, focused on long-term goals, and allow the necessary organization, research, and preparation for a properly planned, calm, and rational response. Inevitably, some urgent tasks will be important, such as health authority inquiries or requests from a clinical investigator. A helpful method to distinguish urgent and important tasks is by mentally sorting tasks into the matrix below.

1) Urgent/Important
Health authority inquiry
Call with supervisor
2) Not Urgent/Important
Hiring a new employee/fellow
Long term strategy
3) Urgent/Not Important
Most “pressing” matters
4) Not Urgent/Not Important
Checking social media
Reading the newspaper

Visualization can sometimes help extract your mind from the frantic reactivity driven by constant urgency. Furthermore, there are ways to prepare for urgent and important tasks. One strategy is to proactively establish standardized responses and procedures to handle crises, so you can follow a methodical, organized approach when a crisis should arise. A “go-bag” of ready-to-use strategies can help maximize constrained timelines. Author Steven Covey explores this philosophy, among many others, in his two superb books on time (and life) management, First Things First and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Even if you can sort your tasks into these four categories and appropriately prioritize them, it is still easy to fall victim to a vicious cycle of urgency. A previous manager whose working day consisted of a vicious cycle taught me an important lesson. He would solve one crisis, and then another immediately appeared; as the burden of these tasks began to take an emotional and physical toll, his job performance began to suffer. Eventually he realized the importance of developing team leaders and delegating urgent responsibilities. By distributing the burden, he was able to find an equal balance in his own job, and his performance subsequently improved.

For millennials, multitasking has become another word for efficient time management. However, by dividing our attention among multiple assignments, our capacity to complete any one task effectively diminishes to near zero. Daily to-do lists, prioritized by highest-value task in descending order, will help establish this one-track mindset. By dedicating focus to one task at a time, we can deliver our best, most effective work. Be mindful to eliminate distractions, including checking emails, phone calls, Facebook, and idle workplace chatter, in order to completely focus and remain productive through each task.

There are also a few simple tricks to eliminate these distractions and maintain focus. To combat the constant urge to check and respond to emails, for example, schedule an hour each day dedicated only to responding to emails. If you find chatty coworkers too distracting, put music on your headphones. If you find music too distracting, put headphones on anyway to give a “do not disturb” impression.

Now revisit our original jar, filled with rocks, pebbles, and sand. It may seem too full for any further additions. However, let’s open a cold, 12-ounce beverage and pour it in. No matter how full the jar originally was, the liquid finds a way to find and fill in all the gaps, even between the sand. The lesson here? No matter how full your life may seem, you always have room to share a cold beverage with a friend.

References available upon request.