The Big Rocks is a Productivity framework to help you get the most important tasks done. It is sometimes called the Most Important Tasks (MITs) system.
The analogy of filling a jar with rocks
It is based on an analogy of filling a jar with rocks of different sizes
large – Important tasks that take a long time
small – less important tasks that take less time
and sand – small things that take only a minute or two.
If you start with the sand, then the small rocks and finally the big rocks, you’ll discover that your jar can’t fit everything in. That means that one of the most important tasks you have will not get done in a day.
But if you start with the big rocks first, then the smaller ones and finally the sand, you can fit everything in.
The reason the real example works is because the smaller rocks and sand fill the gaps between the bigger rocks. When you put them in first, they form a compact layer with the rocks sticking out.
It’s the same with our time.
When we put unimportant tasks first, they consume our time, energy and attention from important tasks.
How the Big Rocks system works for Productivity
Like the rocks in the jar, you should start by planning when you will do your most important tasks.
You need to make time in your day to focus on them. Once you have prioritise these tasks, you can let the smaller tasks fill in the available gaps left.
In practice, I find that some smaller tasks don’t get done and fall by the wayside. But as they are less or unimportant, it doesn’t matter.
How to apply the Big Rocks Productivity System
Every morning (or the night before) set the three most important tasks that you must complete for that day.
Estimate how long each task will take to do.
Block time on your calendar to do them
DO what you planned.
That final point is the trickiest, especially if you have limited control over your time. But my experience has been that prioritising and trying to follow this approach has benefits even if I suddenly find that my time table is ruined for the day with unexpected meetings.
Give the Big Rocks Time Management System a Go
Now you have all the information you need to start doing this system. You can do it with a digital app but I like keeping a small, index card size piece of paper on my desk. It provides a constant reminder all day long.
I’ve heard many people discuss the benefit of creating an “ideal week” template to help guide your planning. While many of us can’t direct our schedules to achieve our ideal week calendars, it provides a useful reference that we can turn to and guide our planning. In the past, I’ve used a google spreadsheet, but this week I created a new ideal week calendar using iCal.
Table of Contents
What is an ideal week calendar?
An ideal week calendar maps how you wish your week was. If you were in complete control and could set the time you wanted/need for each task, then your calendar would look like the ideal week calendar. I’ve created an ideal week schedule (a static doc) before but I’ve only had a calendar for the last couple of weeks and found it helps em feel on track.
Now when you say ideal…
You could either approach this in one of two ways.
What you would choose without any external influence. (Ideal = utopia)
How you would allocate your time if everything went according to plan (Ideal = intended).
While the first is a useful exercise as it helps to highlight the activities we enjoy and dread, providing a guide to help increase and decrease activities accordingly; the second is more practical for day to day planning.
Why an ideal week calendar helps
You should review different aspects of your work, life and preferences as you plan your ideal week (prompts below). This review process is valuable on its own. You’ll no doubt notice some tensions between activities you dislike but are valuable or appointments when you do your best work. You might also noticed how well (or not) your current time consumption matches your desires.
The real value of the ideal week calendar is that it provides a guide for what activities you should and shouldn’t do now. This is a framework to guide what activities you should do now. If you are in complete control of your schedule, you can aim to stick to it rigidly; but if your manager has a magic lamp to sum you to any zoom call, you can use ideal week calendar as a guideline to adjust.
Why you should make an ideal week calendar not a doc
I first came across the ideal week concept from Michael Hyatt where he advocated using a google spreadsheet to create a doc for your ideal week. That’s a perfectly acceptable option and it’s better for some people to make a doc than a calendar.
For creating your true “ideal” week that you can’t possibly stick to (at least yet).
But I was taken by the idea of making a calendar I could reference as…
I could access this anytime, anywhere
I have to adapt on the fly to my manager and co-workers activities but I want a guideline for activities for each day.
There are certain infrequent, important but never urgent tasks that can easily get neglected, using this method sets a time each week and provides a prompt to do them.
How to create your own ideal week calendar
Below is the five step process I used to create my ideal week calendar. While you don’t have to follow these steps and can probably work it out for yourself, you can use my process for yourself. (The review prompts in step on and the final, sixth step are certainly worth considering).
To start, we need to work out what we want to do and when is best to do it. You might want to consider the questions below to help clarify your thoughts.
When you are the most and least productive?
What activities can you only (or are easiest to) complete at certain times or locations? (i.e. the Gym is half way between work and home so it’s easiest to go before or after work)
What activities are the most crucial for you (both for work and personal life.)
How much time do you ideally want to dedicate to each area or core task?
How little time do you want to set aside for distracting activities (i.e. only 1hr of twitter a week)
When should you do your most valuable tasks? (guided by previous points)
When should you do your least valuable tasks?
What non-moveable appointments do you have?
2. Create a calendar
The first step is to create a calendar that you will fill. As a Mac and Apple user, I went for an iCal calendar with my iCloud account. If you use Google calendar or a different tool then go for that. Using a separate calendar allows you to turn it on and off rather than having “conflicts” with events.
3. Add the “big rocks”
With the calendar in place, add the most important task and the non-moveable items. Match your most productive times with your most valuable tasks. These should be recurring events not one time events, i.e. a weekly meeting with friends or taking your child to their after-school club, not “taking my kid to camp”. One time events go in your regular calendar.
4. Fill in the gaps
With the key tasks in place, you should have some gaps left. These will probably be at times when you aren’t productive or have no clear purpose. The tasks will be part of two groups: those you forget and distractions. For distractions, make sure you set clear limits. For neglected tasks, be careful when you place them. If a task is one you often neglect them, there’s a chance that you need more willpower to complete them (but you don’t have it when you normally turn to them).
At this point, it’s good to review everything. You may have lost the big picture in the details, causing you to not give enough time to certain tasks, or create a schedule that won’t really work. Look at the zoomed out view and make some adjustments.
6. Have the calendar at hand
The final step is to keep your calendar accessible so you can use it to guide you. I have it appear on my Apple Watch in the central complication, showing whatever I want to be doing right now. I also keep it in the calendar app on my Mac so I can look at that during the day.
Have you created an ideal week calendar?
Do you use an ideal week template or calendar? How has it helped you?
The Accidental Creative is a book by Todd Henry who runs a website of the same name. It covers the challenges of creative work, what causes those challenges, and five practices to help avoid those issues. I have written this The Accidental Creative Book summary to help distil my understanding and key lessons from the book. It is not a comprehensive guide to every aspect of the book.
The Accidental Creative book summary Sketchnote
The Problem: being brilliant every day
As professional creatives, we have to be brilliant every day. We are only as good as our last idea and our next one had better exceed our last.
If we were amateurs then we could relax, take the pressure off and just enjoy the process. But that’s not easy when your income is on the line and your manager or client even more spectacular work than yesterday’s product.
To cope, we usually try to brute force our way through creative blocks. We spend more and more time on projects, but that ultimate just leads to burn out.
The Goal: Sustainable Brillance
There are three characteristics of great creative work, but we can usually only get two at a time.
Prolific – generating large amounts of work
Brilliant – generating high-quality work
Healthy – Not feeling emotionally, physically and spiritually drained.
Achieving two at a time is easy but when one aspect is missing, we either are unreliable, mediocre or burnout. The goal, is to manage to achieve all three. To produce high-quality work on a regular basis and not breakdown or split from our families.
The Obstacles: The Assassins of Creativity
There are 3 pressures that prevent us from doing our best creative work.
Disonance – confusion caused by unclear systems, tasks and objectives. This causes creatives to spend effort working out the task or dealing with the system than doing the task.
Fear – both of success and failure. We become worried about the repercussions of our actions and so trend towards safety and stability instead of taking needed risks.
Expectation Escalation – We can reject good ideas because they aren’t great. This pressure can come from inside the project, from our past success and from looking at our competitors. Many great ideas have humble beginnings.
The Soltuion: Creating a routine that aids creativity
We can’t guarantee that our next project will be our best, but we can guarantee that we will fully apply ourselves. If we implement a series of routines and habits, we can ensure that we aren’t overwhelmed with stress. Instead, we will have an abundance of inspiration to draw upon when we create.
These habits fall into five areas
Focus – directing your efforts where they are best placed.
Energy – whole life planning to avoid burnout and prepare for challenging times.
Relationships – cultivating purposeful relationships to help each other grow.
Stimuli – avoiding distractions and reducing low-quality input while feasting on rich creative input.
Hours – Managing your time to ensure that important tasks get done.
Adding more can actually help you get more done.
It seems counterintuitive that adding extra activities can help you get more done, but it can be true in creative work. Most creative work tasks require a breakthrough, insight or motivation. When you are burned out, it will take you far longer to complete even easy tasks.
By adding extra process and activities, you can be more well rested and inspired which allows you to more effectively address tasks. This means you can do more, and work more effectively.
But this doesn’t mean you should work extra long hours. It may be better to take a good break and regain your energy than try to push through the creative barrier.
Implementing practices that drive creativity
There is a challenge between reflecting too often, leading to overthinking, and too infrequently, not benefiting from reflection. By adopting weekly, monthly and quarterly checkpoints you can strike a balance. These items can be used alongside other systems.
The difference between weekly, monthly and quarterly checkpoints
Each checkpoint looks at the forthcoming time period mentioned in the name. So a weekly checkpoint looks at the week ahead, while monthly ones look at the following month and Quarterly the subsequent quarter.
Consequently, a weekly checkpoint is much more detailed orientated while the quarterly checkpoint is more focused on the big details.
While the weekly lays out an agenda for the following week according to set in place principles, the quarterly examines the big picture. Quarterly checkpoints reflect on your principles and makes adjustments to apply in your weekly and monthly actions.
Reflective prompts for the 5 Creative Practice
The following section includes reflective prompts to bring these creative practices in your life.
Focus is about identifying the most important activities that will bring about the greatest results and match your values. It’s not just about work, but your personal life as well.
Focus is also about being clear over what you are actually doing. A clear project helps avoid wasting time. This can come from working out what you are doing, or finishing a project and then realizing it’s wrong.
At quarterly checkpoints, establish areas of focus. Make sure you list personal and professional.
Set (quarterly) or review (monthly, weekly) your “big three” (These are big challenges you need to address. Make sure you write them as challenges answering “What am I really trying to do?”)
At weekly checkpoints, Identify any tasks you can cluster together.
Being intention with your relationships allows you to find stimulating, inspiring and challenging creators to help and be helped by. These can (and should) be people in similar areas or in wildly different fields.
At your weekly checkpoint, check if you need to meet with anyone, what you should prepare and schedule your meet ups. At your quarterly checkpoints, consider your relationships and note times to meet.
Head to heads – meetings with individual people where you prepare something to share that is interesting you at the moment and may interest them. A relationship to ignite the creative spark in each other. This relationship may last for a season. Meet every month or so.
Circles – A group meeting where you share work, ideas and challenges to draw collective wisdom and accountability. These groups may come, go and change. Meet every month.
Core team – Individuals whose opinions and whose perspectives you want on major decisions. These relationships should last a long-time, but they too may change over time due to commitments. The most infrequent meeting you will have.
Energy is about managing your ability to perform. Some times you will be more drained than others. Some tasks and personal commitments can be more draining. Noticing these trends and commitments that will drain you allow you to plan to avoid burnout.
Weekly planning focuses more on moving projects on a day-to-day basis. Quarterly planning should look more at regular activities and week-long projects or commitments.
For example, if you have a major work project one week, it’s probably best to scale back personal commitments that week.
Identify any large projects and commitments. Pay close attention to possible conflicts.
Identify activities that should be pruned. Perhaps it seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it isn’t.
Many of us consume mostly low-quality input that is pushed to us such as pop TV, the news, and social media. While there is nothing wrong with this content, it shouldn’t be the only content we consume.
It’s much better to get some high-quality content in the form of serious study material and time-tested classics.
In your quarterly checklist you should focus on identify the types of materials and projects you will do. In your weekly checklist you should look at your study, project and experience lists and select the best items for that week.
Make a study plan with areas where you are lacking knowledge (25%) things you are interested in (50%) and What would be good for you (25%).
Review your notes on material you have studied recently.
Plan stimulating experiences (nature, museums, out of comfort zone locations, service opportunities).
Hours is about allocating your precious time to all the activities you have listed. Although it is tempting to focus just on work, make sure you allocate time for every part of your life. This should include stimulation and unnecessary creating.
In your quarterly planning sessions, look at the major time commitments on the horizon. Also look at your general routine and patters. When would be a good time to spend studying? What activities are at an ill-suited time? When could you move them to?
I remember having a Polish class very early in the morning. I always arrived feeling tired and found it hard. We moved it thirty minutes later, and I was a far more effective student.
Get your copy of The Accidental Creative
If you have found my Accidental creative book Summary interesting, you might want to purchase a copy of the book. It goes into more specifics on how to reflect on each point.