“We’ve heard the illustration. Your life is an empty jar. If you fill it with sand first (the trivial trappings of life) there will be no room for larger stones (the truly valuable ventures). However, if you place the stones first, they will all fit, and the sand will fit too, finding its way into all the little spaces in between. The concept is simple: put the important things first.”
The jar illustration is attractive because it creates a nice mental picture. It’s easy to remember and it makes logical sense – for the next time you’re collecting things in jars. However, the illustration is flawed, shattered if you will, when it comes to deciding how to spend time. The stone analogy implies that certain activities or things, by their nature, are time priorities. But that simply isn’t so. Everything in life must be taken in context – in context of time and in context of your personal station in life. For example, I can’t say that generally, unattached from context, drinking coffee is a major priority in life. In the morning, however, it is most definitely a priority!
When overwhelmed by life, ask yourself what you need to do today. In prioritizing, think less about the nature of the activity, and more about the immediacy of it – how important is the activity at this moment? Completing a grad school application may seem more important than getting an oil change, but right now, which is really important? The answer depends on immediacy.
Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. When we worry about the future, we tend to put off very immediate needs. For example, sleep. If you need sleep now, then sleep! When we worry about the future, we also deprive ourselves of enjoying the present. If you feel guilty for movie night with friends when you have an early meeting at work the next day, check your priorities. Unless there is something you need to do now to prepare for your meeting, then relax and enjoy your friends!
Evaluating the immediacy of something becomes more challenging when balancing your own needs against others’. This is especially the case with very demanding people. Bosses in particular are notorious for demanding everything ASAP. If you have multiple supervisors at work, the demands are multiplied. To deal with this situation, get in the habit of respectfully asking, “When do you need this by?” and try to get an honest answer or a reason for the deadline.
Being diligent with the tasks right in front of you can be difficult, especially if you’re a planner. It requires faith for the future, rather than a calculated analysis of how different steps may get you to future goals. In my experience though, it’s the only way to live. Life is unpredictable.
Pushing immediate needs to the top of your priority list, rather than mentally comparing the intangible value of different activities, will free up a lot of mental energy. It will also allow you to seize new opportunities when they arise, even though they are unplanned. Expend your mental energy enjoying the present, for today is all we’re promised.