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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  • I have seen this video earlier. It does help me on prioritizing my life. But thanks Loren for bringing that needed clarification. As you said, we need to focus on the important tasks, not on all tasks because we cannot do everything! It’s amazing that I read this post today since I am presently doing some rescheduling of my tasks.

    • Well then the post was good timing!
      There’s a lot that’s good about the video – it is important to make sure to put in our big rocks first. It’s just that we need to understand that that may mean some of the pebbles and rocks still don’t get in.

      • Got to accept that. True!

        • Excellent, thank you this illustration… being a rock guy/geologist I can relate 🙂

  • Great post. I do think Covey proved your point though. If you notice…even the second go around, all of the rocks didn’t really fit! Yes, we need to put the important stuff in first, but if it all doesn’t fit, it just all doesn’t fit.

    • Haha, I did notice that. Doesn’t it just seem stressful too when every minute or second of your day is occupied by some rock or pebble? The best way to leave plenty of space for the big rocks (and our sanity) is to make the tough decisions about what rocks and pebbles get left out.

  • Guilty! I’m really struggling with this right now. I’ve got buckets within buckets, and the rocks in each one are pretty big.

    It’s ironic that I am great at pushing back and saying “no” to protect my team at work…I know the capacity of their bucket and I defend them like a mama-bear, but i won’t do it for myself. Somehow, i think that there’s always room for another small rock. “it’s just an hour. or two.”

    • Exactly. And the problem is that most of those rocks are good things. It’s volunteering here, relaxing there, time for relationships here. Cutting out “waste” is obvious, but for most of us that may not be enough. Especially if you realize your tendency to over-commit. (I do the same thing.)

      • You hit on a true stumbling block to making good decisions – over commitment. Having too much taking up our mental state affects the quality of our decisions.

        • I think maybe I’ll write a blog post about that, as well. The issue is that there are plenty of good things out there for us to do. Every task has some value. People are reluctant to get rid of the good in their schedule, but that’s the only way that we can make room for the best.

          • You definitely should. I would love to get your perspective in detail.

  • Bold! Calling Covey “wrong” takes guts!

    I love the point you make…get rid of some of the rocks. Simply changing the order does not necessarily allow everything to fit. We are naive if we think it is that easy.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    • I really respect him and his thoughts, and I’m sure he would agree with me if we were having a conversation about this face-to-face. But I think a lot of people miss the boat on how they interpret this illustration.

  • I used to find that unless I got up in the morning and started working right away, I’d lose all motivation to work. Because of that, it was a sacrifice to sit down first thing in the morning and have a nice long quiet time.

    I made the sacrifice, though – this was years ago – and God has honored it. It wasn’t long before I came to love those times with God, and He has since used our time together to work on my character flaw of laziness.

    I suppose this wasn’t really a decision to reduce the number of rocks, but by making the decision I knew I might never get to those other rocks because I was such an unmotivated person. He was (and is) worth it though!

    • That’s a great example of putting the big rocks first in your schedule. And it’s wise of you to realize not only the importance of the task, but how you had to schedule it into your day in order to get it done!

  • 100% with you. Though there are methods and tricks to time management you can pick up along the way (thanks to certain awesome blogs…), one of the biggest “tricks” to learn is to say no to the things you don’t have time for. Prioritizing and juggling can only go so far.

    • That’s a great way of putting it. Learning to say yes and no strategically is essentially what time management boils down to.

  • When we understand our purpose and calling in life, it’s easier to say no to the things that just aren’t important, or that try to steal time away from our calling. I’ve heard it said that you can’t say no to anything until you’ve first said yes to something greater.

    I have said yes to a calling in my life, which means I am able to say no to things that would deter me from that calling. It’s not always easy, but when I look at the purpose of my life and something doesn’t fit in, I can say no with confidence.

    • You nailed it, Jason!
      It’s the constant process of living out our priorities. Once we acknowledge the reality that we can’t fit it all in, then we can begin the process of really refining what rocks we do fit into our buckets.

  • Great minds think alike! I have seen this same illustration used to prioritize our walk with Christ (I thought of it when I wrote my latest post). The word picture is good, but the reality does fall short. Worldly priorities (family, work, etc.) are transient – they can change in a heart beat (i.e. someone gets sick, or into an accident, or whatever), so we must be able to be flexible. I have found that as long as I keep an attitude of flexibility, things get done more efficiently.
    This is a great post, Loren! Thank you.

    • “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape.” Haha 🙂

  • Look at you calling out the big dogs! Excellent point made here. It’s just not as clean as Covey presents it. I like what he’s trying to say but yeah it can be misleading.

    • Well, I don’t really mean to call him out. I think he would agree with me. I don’t think it’s that he makes a bad point, but that the way he makes it leaves it open to misinterpretation.

  • I have some big things coming at the end of this year and it will require me to cram it in to an already busy schedule, I know I’m going to have to say no to some things others expect me to say yes to. I have taken the Stephen Covey course but never thought of this illustration they way you just laid it out, really good point.

    • Glad it could be helpful. Looks like you’ll have some difficult decisions before you – but I know you’re up to it!

    • Knowing ahead of time that you are facing this time, are you making the decision you can now, so that you have more energy when the big stuff hits? I guess I’m curious as to how you are preparing for what you know is coming with regard to decision making. Are there things you can decide now to ease your pressure later? I am studying decision making this week, so your perspective could be helpful.

  • What an insightful post Loren! I have long used Covey’s illustration here to help people see the need for healthy priorities. THAT point still works. But what you’ve observed is powerful…

    Sometimes it’s not “Big rocks first” – it’s “Big rocks INSTEAD OF.” I think we can all learn from your insights here Loren. Thank you!

    • That’s a great way to differentiate between the two interpretations, Carey. It’s more than simply just the order – it’s what rocks make the cut!

  • Since a baby joined our family I have struggled to balance life and prioritize. I’m better than I was, but I know I still struggle.

    I had not seen this video, thanks for it and for the added clarification.

    • Glad it could be helpful, TC. A baby can certainly shake things up a little. Been there, done that (twice)!

  • Interesting that my post planned for this Friday is on decisions. This discussion will be very helpful in my post and may be referenced along with this post, if you are okay with that. I really like your clarification of Covey’s analogy. After all, why should we really fill in all of those spaces? Isn’t it okay to have them? They are what I like to call margin, space to breath and be. They are the space that gives room for God to move in our lives and us time and energy to respond. Good stuff as usual, Loren.

    • Of course you can feel free to use anything from here! Thanks for doing so!
      Margin is something that people don’t appreciate like they should. It’s not laziness to leave some empty space in your schedule. – it’s remembering what’s most important.

      • Thanks Loren. Seems like being busy is trendy, kind of like the clothes we wear. Wonder if it will go out of style?

  • Hey Loren,
    I seem to be tracking you all over the blogosphere and it’s finally led me to your home on the Web, and can I just say you are rockin’ it!

    I love what you are doing here, and I TOTALLY agree with your post here.

    It’s hard to accept the fact that we just can do it all. But when you look at the way we were designed from God’s perspective, it’s clear that overwhelm was not part of the equation.

    I think we need to learn how to say “no” more. If we said no more often all those little pebbles wouldn’t add up so much.

    About a month ago I watch this movie called In Time, the premise was that each person had a specific amount of time left on their “clock” which was basically their life. And time was the currency of the world.

    I thought this was a really interesting concept because we often hear people say “live today like it could be your last day.” And I think it inspires a sense of recklessness. But what if you lived like you knew (down to the minute) exactly how much time you had left to live. I think suddenly all of our priorities would become a lot more clear. I think we would refuse to pour pebbles into our bucket.

    Our behavior changes when our perspective changes. So I think the question becomes, what needs to shift in your perspective that enables you to make those difficult decisions that allow us to remove the pebbles from our life?

    Great work here! Thanks.

    • A word I use all too often is “overwhelmed,” and I’ve recently realized what you said so well, namely that “overwhelm was not part of the equation.” Then, your comment about shifting perspectives took my realization to another level. When my focus is on God, I can be overwhelmed with Him, and all other decisions can flow from that. Still working out this thought…

      • Hey Kari,
        I think another thing to consider when it comes to overwhelm is that it exists in the mind, right?

        I mean the reason we feel overwhelmed is not only because we are trying to do more than we can, but we are also THINKING about all we have to do, instead of taking each moment by the moment.

        I think the best way to overcome overwhelm is to cut what you must cut and then trust that anything else you must do in this life God will give you the power to do. He doesn’t give us more than we can bear, and he’s always with us. At that point it’s about trusting Him. Being diligent. And entering His rest.

        It’s something that doesn’t come to be overnight, but with practice and prayer God can do anything!

        Hope that helps. 🙂

        • Over time, being easily overwhelmed has lessened in my life. I believe it is a weakness of mine and one with which I will always struggle. BUT, God is doing a work in that area for sure. Your points are so true and boil down to the fact that it’s all about focus. When I focus on Him and what He is capable of, nothing can be overwhelming. When I focus on my own abilities, well that’s another story completely. Learning to trust Him is certainly part of the process of being perfected. Thank you for your thoughts.

        • That’s a great point, Marlee. So many times people think it’s an issue of the schedule. It’s really first and foremost an issue of mindset.

    • In Psalm 90, Moses prays to God to teach him to number his days so that he may gain a heart of wisdom. So your points about considering our limited time is right on.
      Oh, and that movie looked really interesting when I saw a preview a while ago. Maybe I’ll check it out!

      • It’s not award winning, but certainly entertaining. There are some really loud messages about wealth, culture, and society running through it that make you think.

  • Loren your going up again a legend but your sharing some great points. Since having a new born baby I have had to change a lot of my normal routines around. My focus is more on my family and child than it is on others things. I’m still finding a balance and getting into a routine. Great thoughts!!!

    • Babies will do that, haha. It’s certainly a change of pace. I’m sure you’re making great decisions about how to spend your time.

  • So true, Loren. I think this can be done on a daily basis, so that we don’t have to make drastic changes right away. In other words, instead of sitting down and wondering what aspect of your life to cut out, sit down and schedule everything you have to and want to do today(I just finished doing that on SmartPad). You determine pretty quickly what just doesn’t fit. The other problem with Covey’s analogy is that a lot of times what we think are big rocks are really pebbles and vice versa.

    • I’m also a big proponent of advance scheduling. Perhaps it’s a method better suited to some people more than others. I’ve found it’s so helpful to me because it’s help me visualize my day.

  • Loren, excellent post. I like what you said, “But at some point, we just need to get rid of rocks.” This is really the crux of the issue. We might have to make the decision to cut things out of our lives to get important things then. You might need to watch less TV, or no TV at all. Actually, I probably only spend about 2 hours a week watching TV. I now spend most of my time reading, participating in small groups, devotionals with my daughters. I am really doing important things, I’ve managed to do that by getting rid of rocks. God Bless.

    • That’s a great way to make up some extra time in your week. I’m pretty much the same with TV. I will watch movies or the occasional show with my wife as a way for us to spend time with each other, but that’s about it. The thing is: I don’t really miss it at all.

  • Loren, all of your recent posts just came through on my google.reader! I had guessed that you were having a very busy week and that’s why there weren’t posts. I was wrong! 🙂

    I’ve heard this analogy in many different contexts but no one has pointed out needing to get rid of some rocks. I agree. It’s interesting that I’ve been thinking of one big rock I have that I’m trying to cut in half — not get rid of it completely, but not have it as large as it currently is. Amy

    • Huh, that’s strange about the Google Reader. Well, I guess it’s worked out now!
      Good luck on slashing away at your rocks. It’s an important thing for us to do.

  • Matt

    I agree with this story. However, Stephen Covey also uses the below analogy, which is exactly, I believe, the point you are trying to get across.

    “Rocks & Sand”

    “One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students. As he stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” He then pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on the table. He produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them one at a time into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?”

    “He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing it to work down into the space between the big rocks. Then he asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied.

    “He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand and started dumping the sand in the jar until it filled the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?” No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good.”

    Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

    One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit some more things in it!” “No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point.”

    “The truth this illustration teaches us is that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all. What are the ‘big rocks’ in your life? Your children, your loved ones, your education, your dreams, a worthy cause, teaching others, doing things that you love, your health; your mate. Remember to put these BIG ROCKS in first or you’ll never get them in at all. If you sweat about the little stuff then you’ll fill your life with little things and you’ll never have the real quality time you need to spend on the big, important stuff.”

    – Stephen Covey, “First Things First”

    • On a second reading from that in “First Things First” (which I loved by the way), I can see your point. I think if one reads between the lines, one could draw the same conclusion. And I’m sure if Covey were talking with me, we’d be on the same page.
      I just think it’s a helpful addition to the illustration. It would be even better if the rocks didn’t fit in the second time – that’d be a great way to do this illustration!

  • Paul

    To be fair, if we read the book First things First we will see that Covey tackles this.
    He teaches how sometimes in life we need to make important decisions that may even mean leaving out 1 or 2 of the 4 areas of ‘mental’ ‘physical’ ‘spiritual’ and ‘social/emotional’. For example a new mother, the biggest rock being her new baby – some of the other big rocks won’t fit in (for a time anyway).
    Or a new career project which would take most of one’s time to get it off the ground – like starting a new business.
    He accepts that clearly sometimes we have to even prioritise the big rocks, but that if we prioritise true to our selves and our goals the burning YES inside will keep us balanced, but that it needs to be relatively short term.
    In the long term we need to balance the 4 important areas.
    So in this sense Covey is totally agreeing with you – it’s all about living true to our values 🙂

    • Yes, I think Covey does take a step back at some point and address the concerns I raise. And I’m sure if he were here now talking to me (how cool would that be?) that we would be in total agreement.
      I just think that it’s helpful to add my little caveat into the big rocks illustration because so many people may not understand exactly what Covey would believe about the subject.
      Thanks for stopping by, Paul!

  • Omar

    I am confused but your post. I’ve read it a few times and it seems to me, based on your writing, that your view is actually in complete agreement with Covey’s. What am I missing?

    • The video of Covey’s demonstration no longer exists on YouTube, so perhaps I’ll look for another copy to use instead. I think seeing the video might make more sense to how we differ. In the video, Covey placed the big rocks in first and everything suddenly fit in. I think that many people interpret the illustration to mean that when we put the big rocks in first that everything will still fit in our lives. I don’t believe that to to be true. At some point, you have to decide that some little rocks don’t make it into the jar. I would say that deciding what gets left out is just as important a concept to grasp as deciding what first to put in.
      I don’t think that Covey would really disagree with me. I’m sure we’d be on the same page. But I think that his illustration is often misinterpreted. Make sense?

  • Tom Rasmussen

    You make a good point but miss a bigger lesson. One of the Big Rocks is Preventing Little Rocks. His Quadrant II specifically addresses prevention of ‘little rocks’ (my word here) through proper planning etc. Sure there will always be urgencies, but for most people their urgencies are the repeats of yesterday’s or last week’s urgencies. And you’ll never deal with them until you put in the Big Rock and start improving your life.

    • Yes, I can see your point. Focusing well on Quadrant II tends to take care of many of the little rocks. However, I think that many people today still try to cram in too much. I believe Covey would agree that at some point, you have to decide what rocks get left out of the jar.