Sometimes, it’s not the tasks on your to-do list that overwhelm you, but simply the act of sorting them out and figuring out where to start. Before you can prioritize your responsibilities and setting out a schedule for getting everything done (using strategies like “eating the frog” or creating a 1-3-5 to-do list), you have to identify what those big tasks are and what capacity you have to take them on. If you are the type of person that finds it helpful to visualize these things, I like to refer to a pair of strategies that both involve imagining tasks as rocks: The “pickle jar theory” and the “big rocks theory.”

What is the pickle jar theory?

The pickle jar theory is an excellent mental exercise for anyone who thinks or processes things visually. It was conceptualized by Jeremy Wright in 2002, based on the idea that a pickle jar holds a finite amount of content. So, too, does your day. There is only so much you can do in a day, as there is only so much you can stuff into a pickle jar. 

When thinking of your day as a pickle jar, imagine it full of three things: Rocks, pebbles, and sand. These represent your daily responsibilities, but as you can see, they’re different sizes. You can fit more of the smaller stuff, like sand and pebbles, than you can rocks, but rocks can still take up half the jar. 

How does the pickle jar theory work?

To use this kind of thinking, you need to categorize your day’s tasks. Start by writing them all down, then prioritizing them using the Eisenhower Matrix, which is useful for figuring out which tasks are urgent and important, urgent and not important, not urgent but important, and not urgent and not important. 

Then, assign each task to a rock, pebble, or sand, like this: 

Rocks are the big tasks that are important, necessary to get on right away, and/or will take up a major chunk of time. Studying for a test, finalizing a major project at work, or cleaning the house can be rock-sized tasks, for instance. 

Pebbles are the things that are important to do, but not immediately necessary or massively time-consuming. You can fit quite a few of them in the jar, depending on how many rocks you have in there. 

Sand represents the small things that you need to do to keep your day moving along or just want to do. It enters the jar last and fills up the gaps between the bigger items. Sand can be anything from answering emails, going to meetings, calling your mom, or relaxing. These aren’t necessarily urgent or time-consuming, but they’re still important to your work or mental wellbeing. 

Visualize yourself putting one to three rocks in the jar, three to five pebbles, and as much sand as can fit. Understanding that not every single thing you need to do can always fit in there, you can make decisions about which rocks, pebbles, and sand pieces to hold over for the next day’s jar. 

This works because it gives you a tangible example of your own capacity, but also reminds you that even when your day is full of “rocks” and “pebbles,” you still have room for “sand.” Don’t forget to let some of the sand be enjoyable, because breaks are integral to productivity. Don’t over-stuff your jar with rocks and pebbles to the point that you have no room for sand at all, and don’t forget that other people have their own jars that might not be as full. Consider delegating some “pebble” tasks to a teammate, whether it’s a coworker or your spouse, or eliminating the unnecessary tasks altogether. (On your Eisenhower Matrix, these will be the ones that are neither urgent nor important.)

What is the big rocks theory?

There is a simplified version of the idea above that can work for you, too, if you don’t want to categorize your tasks into rocks, pebbles, and sand, but want something a little more streamlined.

You might be familiar with the concept of “big rocks” if you’ve read Stephen Covey’s popular book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Essentially, as with the pickle-jar mindset, you should think of your time, energy, and resources like a big container and the things you need to do as rocks or gravel. You can’t fit very many big rocks in there, but you can fit a few and still have room for the smaller tasks. The big ones take away from the space—your resources and time—so you have to be intentional about how many you really try to fit in.

Visualizing is important, but you still have to use that to make a plan and get things done. First, write down everything you need to do on one page, whether in a digital word processor or a physical notebook. Then, consider how much time, energy, and other resources each thing will take and mark it as either a rock or gravel. Unlike other task prioritization methods, like the Eisenhower matrix mentioned above, this can be pretty loose. Just put down your best guess about how much each task will drain you. (When you’re short on time, opt for this big rocks approach over the pickle jar approach because of its relative simplicity.)

Once you have everything designated as a rock or gravel, schedule the rocks first. Here’s where you can use timeboxing to clearly carve out dedicated time for each thing you have to do. Keep in mind that if you schedule and work on gravel activities—emails, phone calls, doing the dishes, whatever—without taking on the big rocks first, you’ll never get around to the big rocks; the smaller tasks are usually pretty endless, so you need to prioritize the big ones. Go back to your visualization: If you put all the gravel into your vessel before the big rocks, you’d fill it up and leave no room, but if you put in the big rocks first, then add the gravel, the gravel will fall between the rocks and settle in where it can.

Identifying the resource-heavy, demanding tasks and prioritizing those ahead of the more menial stuff will allow you to actually make time to tackle it so you can fit the rest in where you can. But be a little judicious with that scheduling: Don’t load a full day of big rocks into your schedule. You’ll burn yourself out. Instead, choose only one or two per day, then allocate the rest of your time to those maintenance tasks.