I imagine that most of you are familiar with the coaching story of the full jar.
A teacher fills a jar with large stones and asked the class whether it was full. When they said yes, he pulled out some pebbles and was able to put these into the jar. He asked if it was full now and, when they said yes, he added sand to the jar. Upon being told that it was now definitely full, he poured water on top of the sand in the jar.
At this point, I like to think that the audience was holding their breath wondering what was going to be added next. The point of the illustration is to show that you need to put the important things (your big stones) into the jar first and then let the smaller things fill in the gaps around them.
I suspect that, if I’d been in the class, I might have felt somewhat misled and patronised. I suspect that a great deal depends on the charisma and the delivery of the teacher. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m also not at all convinced by the implicit message that we should all be aiming for a completely full jar. On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of prioritising and making sure that the important things are taken care of first, so it’s hard to be too sceptical of the analogy.
One of the underlying difficulties for me with this illustration is that sometimes a task can be both a big stone and water. I appreciate that I’ve just broken the laws of physics here, but bear with me!
A task can be very important to you (hence it being a big stone), but it can also spread out to fill all of the available space (or time, the physics police won’t be after me for that one). Sometimes, work itself can fall into this category. We prioritise work but, particularly whilst working from home, we find that there are always more tasks to be done. At some point we have to accept that it is indeed ‘The Never-Ending Task’.
Going back to the demonstration I mentioned, if I were to put ‘work’ as one of my big stone tasks (or rocks), I would end up with a full jar. I’d better hope that I’d put my other big stones into the jar before my ‘Never-Ending Task’, otherwise there would be other priorities that I would have to abandon. It’s also worth remembering that the pebbles, sand and water all represent things we want and need to do.
So how do we avoid letting one task spread out and take over our whole jar?
Firstly, we can try to be much more specific about what we consider our big rocks. Calling ‘work’ a big task is far to ill-defined. Spending time with my clients certainly is a rock, as is the personal development I need to do to make sure that I’m continuing to grow alongside them. Filing or other forms of admin might be less important.
Sometimes we also need to put something less important into the jar before our ‘Never-Ending Tasks’. Tasks which are less urgent or less important can sometimes continue to slip if we don’t make them a priority. I put running at the start of my day, not just because it sets me up well for the day ahead but also because otherwise I could easily find myself so focused on my work that I struggle to make time for it.
I think that the most important thing when dealing with the ‘Never-Ending Task’ is awareness.
Once you recognise that you’ll never actually feel that you’ve completed it, it becomes much easier to set limits on it and to avoid allowing it to become all-consuming. Paying attention to how we spend our time and how this compares to our ideal can really help to highlight the problem, and help us all to find that elusive work-life balance.