Big Rock Theory

The Big Rock Theory: What Really Matters

The Big Rock Theory: What Really Matters | Dr. Will Ramey

The Big Rock Theory: What Really Matters | Dr. Will Ramey 800 600 OnTheStacks

The Big Rock Theory: What Really Matters

Research Backed Approaches to Leadership and Team Dynamics with Dr. Will Ramey, The Leadership Dr.

Applying the Big Rock Theory to how you approach leadership leads to less feeling of overwhelm, a higher sense of control, and more time being spent on what matters most. We share how to sort through the big rocks, the pebbles, and the sand at work so you can maximize your day as a leader and be the best for your team. Let’s get into it!

Where Did My Time Go?

As a team leader have you ever asked yourself “Where did my day go?” or “What on earth did I accomplish today?” After asking yourself that question the feeling of frustration or disappointment tends to wash over you. Not completing tasks or accomplishing what we set out to accomplish in our day can lead to feelings of frustration and inferiority. This feeling cues our follow-on behavior. What do leaders tend do…roll up our sleeves to work harder, which typically means longer hours, working through breaks, or taking work home.

None of these solutions are optimal. What is a team leader to do? Take a step back and breathe for a moment. Leaders should take time to look at their day, identify what is most important, and know where to place their efforts for maximum impact. How can leaders identify what is most important to least important?

The Big Rock Theory

As the story goes, a time management expert was speaking to a group of new team leaders. He stood in front of the group and pulled out a large mason-jar and set it down on the podium. He produced about a dozen rocks and 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 group said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?”

He reached behind the podium and pulled out a bucket of pebbles. He dumped them in and shook the jar, so the pebbles worked their way into the space between the rocks. Again, he asked the group, “Is the jar full?” By this time the leaders began to understand. “I don’t think so,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied.

He reached behind the podium for a bucket of sand and started dumping the sand in the jar. It went into all of the spaces left between the rocks and the pebbles. “Is this jar full?”, He asked. “No!”, the leaders shouted. “Good.”, he said. He grabbed a pitcher of water and poured it in until the jar was filled to the brim.

He looked at the group and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?” One leader raised their hand and said, “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 is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

Identify Your Big Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand

1. Identify what the ‘big rocks’ are. Performance conversations? Recognition for a team member? Presentation to the CEO? Ask yourself – What absolutely must get done today that is impactful and meaningful? What does your team need from you today? Where does your team need YOU most today?

2. What are those pebbles? These are the tasks that you need to get done but are less urgent and less important than your big rocks. Think about administrative functions. Actions that are necessary to keep the team moving but aren’t necessarily making big impacts or overly time sensitive. Are these tasks that could be delegated to your team members? Or maybe they need done but it can wait until the end of the day.

3. Where is the sand? These tasks are the least important and least urgent but tend to be time detractors. Do I really need to reply to this email right now? Does this article that was just forwarded need read immediately? These are the tasks that can either be scheduled for later, delegated to someone else, or maybe even deleted from doing at all.

The hidden benefits of identifying your big rocks

1. The feeling of overwhelm will go down as you funnel down where you are spending your time.

2. Your sense of purpose will increase knowing you are prioritizing work where you have the most impact for your team.

3. You will have more time for connecting with your team as you begin to make a habit of prioritizing your tasks day to day, week to week, and month to month.

I learned this approach as a young Lieutenant in the Army leading a team of 114 Soldiers responsible for maintenance operations, both in garrison and deployed to Iraq. I needed awareness of what was going on, but everything could not be a priority for me. If everything was a priority and waited for me, it would bottleneck. Instead, I needed to understand where to spend my time and where to take risks, delegate, and schedule tasks accordingly.

I doubled down and put this method to work when I became a Senior Leader of larger teams. Time is a finite resource. As a team leader you have more demands on your time, especially as your team grows in size and responsibility. Prepare yourself to overcome the stress and challenge of time management as a team leader.

Remember to put the BIG ROCKS in first or you’ll never get them in at all. Stay focused. The next article will explain just how to prioritize tasks once you identified the big rocks and pebbles that need done.

Interested in learning how to reclaim control of your time and feel less stressed when you look at your calendar? Join my waitlist for my upcoming program: Prioritize and Execute to Focus on Meaningful Work by Dr. Will Ramey (

Reach out to connect on LinkedIn Dr. William Ramey | LinkedIn

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