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Rocks and Pebbles: Doing What's Important May Be a Challenge When the Small Things Pile Up

Guest Column Dawen Choy

The story goes that a certain time-management guru was giving a seminar to a group of executives. To illustrate a point he was about to make, he brought out a large glass tank and proceeded to fill it with big rocks until he could fit no more. He then asked his audience, "Is the tank full?"

The executives, many of whom were veterans of innumerable time-management workshops, pondered a while and finally someone ventured, "The tank is not full."

"Correct," said the guru, and he then poured pebbles into the same glass tank. The smaller pebbles slipped easily into the spaces between the big rocks, and soon the tank was unable to fit any more pebbles. He then asked the same question, "Is the tank full?"

Having caught on to what the guru was doing, the audience now responded without hesitation, "No." Once again the answer was correct, and the guru began to pour sand into the tank until it could hold no more. Without bothering to ask the audience yet again, the guru announced that the tank was still not full and started to pour water into it.

When at last the tank was filled to the brim, the guru turned to the audience and asked, "What principle am I trying to demonstrate?" Several in the audience raised their hand, and one of the executives sitting in the front row volunteered, "The tank represents the total amount of time we have, and the objects you put inside represent the work we have to do. By putting in more and more items into the tank even when it seemed to be full, you're trying to tell us that there's always time to do more work."

The guru smiled as he shook his head. "That's a very good answer, and I'm sure squeezing more time out of your day is the whole raison d'tre of most time-management techniques, but it isn't what I was trying to demonstrate."

Bewildered, the audience listened attentively as he continued, "The point I was trying to make is that when you're filling the tank, you have to put the big rocks in first, otherwise you'll never get them all inside. In other words, you have to schedule the most important activities first and fit the rest around them, or else the little things will overwhelm you and leave you no time for the really big things."

The above story was part of a mass e-mail sent out by a friend a few months ago, and normally I don't pay attention to such mass e-mails because they usually contain an urban legend of some sort or another. However, it was a slow Sunday afternoon and I had just spent the whole morning attempting the latest problem set, so for want of better entertainment I actually read the entire e-mail.

For once, that proved to be a worthwhile investment. The parable didn't bring me sudden enlightenment, but it did make me think about what were the big rocks in my life. After a little reflection, I managed to come up with a list of activities that I considered important to me. It included activities such as calling home every Saturday night, because that's the best fit between Boston time and Singapore time (which is 12 or 13 hours ahead). Sometimes it may only be a short half-hour, but talking to my family energizes me, and I'm sure they are also glad to hear my voice and that everything's all right. The list also included the nightly pool sessions at Pritchett last spring term where I spent time with my girlfriend on a game we both enjoyed, despite our heavy schedules.

My list even included quotidian activities such as cooking dinner everyday with a group of close friends. It may seem strange that such a mundane task qualifies as a big rock for me, but it is true I derive significant enjoyment from eating what my friends and I cook. Cooking takes more time than it would to simply buy a meal from Walker Memorial, but it certainly is cheaper, and I can cook dishes that are more suited to my palate. More important, however, are the immaterial benefits - there is the immense satisfaction that comes from eating what I cook myself, because prior to coming to MIT I never knew how to cook.

There is also the close bonding that develops when you cook and eat with the same people regularly. At home, my family often eats together at the dinner table, and here on the other side of the globe this is the closest substitute I know. I personally find it very relaxing to come back from class everyday and have a group of close friends to talk about the day's events or simply engage in idle chit-chat over a home-cooked meal. It takes almost two hours to thaw, marinate, cook, eat and wash up, but I can think of few other activities that would give me as much pleasure in the same amount of time.

After drawing up the list, I suddenly realized how easily many of the activities on my list could become sidelined by matters of lesser importance but seemingly greater urgency, notably quizzes and problem sets. Sometimes there is the temptation to skip cooking and just eat at Pritchett or Walker in order to save an extra hour for finishing up that problem set due the next day. And there have been occasions when either my girlfriend or I had a quiz the following day and we agreed to play pool some other time.

We all have our big rocks, and I think sometimes the challenge is to make sure the small pebbles and particles of sand do not displace the big rocks from our tanks. Once term begins at MIT, it's very easy to get lost in the mire of classes, problem sets, readings, papers and quizzes, and end up neglecting the really important things in one's life. In my two years at MIT so far, I've spent innumerable weekends squirreled away in my room doing work, pausing only for meals and the occasional e-mail check. And because I cook my own meals, sometimes I never even leave the confines of my hall at East Campus. Maybe this only happens to people who take Physics' Junior Lab, but I've heard that just about everybody in this school has pulled an all-nighter at least once, so my experience cannot be unique.

Giving priority to the big rocks in your life does not mean you have to be inflexible about it - if that paper due the next day is going to make a big difference, then sacrificing a big rock or two temporarily would be the wise thing to do. But it does mean actively making sure that important things really come first, because the fast pace of MIT life means that almost everyday there will be some problem set, paper or quiz due. Small pebbles and sand fit easily into a tank, so the temptation to put them first will always be there. That temptation must be resisted.

Yes, there is no doubt that the tanks of MIT students are pretty much filled, but rather than thinking of how many more things we can put into them, maybe we should be wondering how many big rocks we are neglecting.

So, what are your big rocks, and are you putting them in first?

Dawen Choy is a member of the Class of 2000.