Why Covey’s Big Rocks Illustration Is Wrong

Covey's Big Rocks

You may have heard of Stephen Covey’s (author of First Things First) prioritization system. He stresses the need for us to differentiate the truly important from the merely urgent.

To be sure, Covey has contributed a lot of great thinking on how to manage our time well. But there are some areas where I think people misunderstand his points.

And although it’s a nice conversation piece, I think Covey’s famous “big rocks” illustration leads people in the wrong direction.

The Illustration Summarized

Covey takes out a bucket (which symbolizes our life), a few big rocks (which symbolize our important priorities), and a bunch of small pebbles (which  symbolize the urgent, busy tasks that aren’t important).

Pouring the pebbles into the bucket, he instructs an audience participant to try and fit in the big rocks afterward. It’s impossible to do.

Then, Covey puts the big rocks into the bucket first, pouring the pebbles in afterward. The pebbles fill the cracks left between the big rocks, allowing the participant to fit everything into the bucket after all.

Here’s a video clip if you want to watch Covey’s demonstration:

The Moral of the Story?

What’s the point of the illustration? It’s that you need to schedule in your important tasks or else they won’t fit into the bucket.

But what do many people think is the point of the illustration? That if you put the big rocks in first, the pebbles will still fit around the edges.

That’s just not reality.

We Keep Trying…

So people schedule in their priorities, but the urgent things keep coming up. They guilt trip themselves, take care of the “pebbles,” and promise themselves that they’ll be better about scheduling in their priorities.

The biggest myth that people believe about time management is that they can “fit it all in” if they just rearrange things differently.

We search for that next productivity app, scheduling technique, or goal-setting model in the hopes that we can fit it all in. And it is great to try and be efficient.

But at some point, we just need to get rid of rocks.


It might be working less. It might be reducing areas of service. It might be participating less in a hobby.

Chances are the decisions will be difficult – or else you would have already made them.

What are some difficult decisions you have made or might have to make in order to reduce the amount of pebbles and rocks?

Photo Credit: Claire (Creative Commons)

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