How a hard out improves productivity

A time management coach gave a seminar. As a visual aid, he put a giant jar on the table. Then he filled it with rocks. Big rocks. As big as your fist. He stacked them in there until they reached the rim. “Is the jar full?”

“Yes,” someone said, “you couldn’t fit any more in there.”

He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped the gravel into the jar, and the pebbles rolled down, falling between the rocks and filling the gaps between them. “Now is it full?”

The students had caught on now. They shook their heads.

Nodding, he picked up a bag of sand and poured it in. The sand filtered down between the gravel and the rocks, filling in every available space. “The point of the demonstration,” he said, “is this: put your big rocks in first.”

Big rocks
Photo © Todd Sadowski • iStock

The fancy name for putting the big rocks in first is Fixed Schedule Productivity.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg created a bit of a stir a while back when she admitted she always leaves the office by five-thirty so she can be home by six to have dinner with her kids. That’s what we call a hard out—a point at which one must leave. Family dinner is her big rock. She schedules her paying work around it.

Sandberg is at the top of her field — and her field is one where a 60-hour work week was considered a minimum for success. But she put her family first, fixed her schedule, and let her productivity speak more than her face time. She has reaped the benefits.

Here’s the power behind Fixed Schedule Productivity: when you know you only have a limited amount of time to do what you’re going to do, you quit fooling around and do it.

“Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit — ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way.” — Cal Newport

Cal Newport, who writes the Study Hacks blog, advises—in addition to Fixed Schedule Productivity—an “autopilot schedule.” You know the things that have to be done every week, like taking out the trash, paying the bills, writing your blog posts. Schedule set times for those tasks — grouping like tasks together — and include them in your Ideal Day. You can see in Michael Hyatt’s spreadsheet (mentioned a couple of posts ago) how he does this by assigning a theme to each day, and putting activities with that theme together.

Here’s a simple example. The city picks up my garbage bin on Tuesday mornings, which means the trash needs to go to the curb Monday evening. I go to the gym on Monday evenings. Since I’m going out then anyway, before I leave I go through the house and empty all the wastebaskets, put the bag in the bin, put the bin at the curb, and then go to the gym. I don’t wait till the wastebaskets are full. I just always empty them on Mondays. That’s autopilot.

Another way to think of this is as corralling your time. Block off a time for writing, a time for what I call administrivia, a time for Facebook. Put limits on them so they get done but don’t rob from more important things. By blocking off a fixed amount of time for what matters, you give yourself greater impetus for doing it.

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  1. I remember this example from other classes. The reminder is very helpful. And you tell it with such clarity even I can get it early in the morning.

  2. Lori Altebaumer says:

    A great reminder, thanks! This is also a great way to stay prepared for the “rubber chickens” that life throws at you. If you’ve ever been to a leadership training activity where you stand in a circle and toss a ball around, careful to keep from dropping it, you know the chaos that comes when someone unexpectedly tosses you a rubber chicken instead of a ball.

  3. This is great advice. I usually have a hard time sticking with a schedule, but this makes it sound doable. Thanks!

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  6. […] are the grains of sand in our rock jar. Usually they’re small, and they take time we’re unaware of. A time and motion study can help […]

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