Sad news this week that Steven Covey has died as a result of injuries sustained in an cycling accident in April. Here is one of the most famous illustrations he used – in his book First Things First. It came from a seminar that one of his associates had attended: the instructor was lecturing on time.
At one point he said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz”. He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. “How many of those rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.
After we made our guess, he said, “Okay, let’s find out”. He set one rock in the jar…then another…then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, “Is that jar full?”
Everybody looked at the rocks and said “Yes”.
Then he said “Ahhh”. He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, “Is the jar full?”
By this time we were on to him. “Probably not”, we said.
“Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked at us and said, “Is the jar full?” “No!” we all roared.
He said, “Good!” and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, “Well, what’s the point?”
Somebody said, “Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life”.
“No”, he said, “that’s not the point. The point is this: if you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?
A vivid illustration of the need to prioritise.
As a preacher, I like to connect it with the Old Testament prophet, Haggai who challenged the post-exilic inhabitants of Jerusalem for their failure to get their priorities right: while God’s house lay in disrepair, they were busily occupied on their own wood-panelled houses. Haggai’s message was “First Things First.”