Rocks, Pebbles, Sand

1 January 2012. Filed under category Life.
What is the best way to fill our lives?

What is the best way to fill our lives?

Starting with the easy sand, then pebbles and finally the rocks, I can't fit it all in.

Starting with the easy sand, then pebbles and finally the rocks, I can't fit it all in.

Starting with the rocks, then pebbles and finally sand, I fit everything in.

Starting with the rocks, then pebbles and finally sand, I fit everything in.

New Year’s Day is a perfect opportunity to reflect on and refocus our lives. It doesn’t take long, and the importance of doing it is illustrated in the following story.

A teacher places a glass jar on her table and faces her students. “This is your life,” she says. “It is yours to fill with whatever you wish.”

The teacher takes a bag of rocks and carefully places them one by one in the jar until it is full. “These rocks are the big important things in your life that you will be the most proud of at the end of your days.”

The teacher then scoops out several handfuls of pebbles from a second bag and lets them fall into the jar, shaking the jar slightly so the pebbles fall into and fill the space between the rocks. “These are the secondary things in your life that gives it meaning, but perhaps are not ‘your life’s work’.

The teacher then takes a third bag containing sand and pours it into the jar, filling the space between the pebbles. “Finally, the sand is the little stuff that fills our days, like watching TV or playing games.”

The teacher looks out over her students and asks, “Can you see what would happen if I started with the sand or the pebbles?”

If we start with the big goals of our lives, then the smaller things will move around to fill the space left over, but the reverse is not true. If we start with the sand, then there will be no space left for pebbles or rocks. We all have the same twenty-four hours in a day, but we need to be smart and focused on how we spend them if we want to reach our dreams.

It might sound obvious to focus on the important stuff but many don’t in practice. It is all too easy to idle away the sands of time on Facebook, YouTube or in front of the TV. Similarly, it is easy to focus too much on pleasant but ultimately unimportant ‘busy work’, effectively burying ourselves under a mountain of pebbles. In contrast, the rocks are heavy and thus take time, strength and discipline to budge.

But budge them we shall. Here is how.

Steps for a productive new year

First, identify what your personal rocks are. Which goals do you dream about having completed? What do you want to fill your life with? What would make you the most proud? This is the time to dream big.

Second, pick one or a couple of rocks and set all the others aside. Don’t divide your attention over too many projects or you’ll spread yourself thin, make little progress on any of them and become demotivated. You can switch rocks later, but at any given time, only commit to a few of them.

This is also a good time to identify your pebbles. These are smaller, lighter, quicker goals and projects that you could complete in a few days of work. For completeness, you may also take a second and reflect on the sand you use to fill in the cracks in your time. Hopefully, they are things you love doing and that make you relax or have fun. If you have ‘bad sand’ that is a drain on your energy, then think of how you could get rid of it.

With this exercise done, you are ready to start working. Each day, start working on your rocks for as long as you have the ability or energy. When you are blocked, need some creative time away from your rocks or simply get too tired to go on, switch to your pebbles. Take your mind off the big stuff by finishing off some smaller project. If you don’t feel like picking up a pebble and just need to recharge your batteries, then turn to your sand; relax in front of the TV, go dancing or do something else that you enjoy.

For those who want to see an example of the above as well as for the readers interested in what I am planning to do with 2012, I have included the rocks, pebbles and sand that I identified doing my review. Wish me luck!

My Rocks

Writing a Book
I have a dream of being a published author. I began writing a novel a few years ago, but then put it on ice. It is time to defrost the book and give it another try.
Get a spectacular body
OK, it doesn’t have to be spectacular, but I would love to feel healthy, confident and, yes, sexy.
The Modern Nomad blog posts
I already consider The Modern Nomad one of my rocks. I will continue writing it another year.
Create web pages for a living
I want to explore website development as a possibly nomadic career option.

My Pebbles

Learn Spanish
I was toying with making this a rock, but I had too many of those already. I can just about get by in Spanish, and that is good enough, but I would like to be better.
The Modern Nomad Optimizations
This blog works quite well as it stands today, but there is always some more stuff to do with it. This is my perfect pebble in that I can do little improvements that don’t become massive projects and I love tinkering with the site.
P3 Planet Correspondent
The Swedish public radio has a travel show called P3 Planet. They have suggested that I become one of their correspondents and submit little radio episodes from wherever I go. It might be fun, I might earn some money and most important, I can raise the profile of this blog.
Guest Blogging
I want to grow the readership of The Modern Nomad, and one way of doing that is to write guest posts and articles around the web. (Another is you sharing it with friends and social media.)
Explore wherever I am and meet new friends
I will of course keep travelling and explore my different destinations, and hopefully meet many new and fascinating people.

My Sand

This is all the stuff I do to relax, such as reading, watching TV series, scan Facebook, listen to podcasts and dance.


There are many versions of the Rocks, Pebbles and Sand story. Many include a university student walking up and pouring a beer into the glass jar to prove that, “There is always room for a beer.” Witty perhaps, but not clever. The whole point of the analogy is that order matters. But you could start by filling the whole tank with beer and then drop in the rocks and they would fit perfectly fine. I think few people who fill their lives to the brim with beer, and thus become raging alcoholics, then manage to squeeze in a few feats of greatness.

Getting Things Done

This post deals with how to identify what is important in your life and how to focus on it. I haven’t said much about how to organize the actual work. There are many methodologies for that, and I’ve tried most of them. The one that works for me is Getting Things Done. It is simple, efficient and peaceful. I very much recommend it.


Do you agree with the analogy of Rocks, Pebbles and Sand?

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  1. Debra says:

    absolutley and was only discussing the need for deciding what things are important earlier today, I will share this with that person now

  2. Rich says:

    So true… I realised lately that one of my “sand” things used to be playing PC games. And I used to spend too much time doing it.

    Then I started a “Rock” that I loved doing, and realised that in the last year I haven’t played any new games… so over christmas I felt no guilt at all at putting aside some time for gaming 🙂

    And with your beer analogy side-bar: you’re right about the analogy being a bad one at that point, but I think there’s one more good point to make from it. When you put rocks into a jar filled with beer, a lot of the beer overflows out of the jar. Whereas, if you add sand instead, it’ll just soak up the beer. And likewise alcoholics who find a “life’s work” task to distract them often do stop focusing on alcohol. Yet another bonus!


  3. Craig Brown says:

    Prioritization is important and this is an excellent tool for thinking about it. Besides, “Getting Things Done,” “Minimalism” is also applicable here. My life is constructed so that I have a heck of a lot of pebbles!! I need to get rid of some, but the consequences are challenging…like how much financial loss am I willing to take to get rid of my rental home and all the nonsensical time it takes in my life? Watching someone give up a lucrative job at a prestigious investment firm for a more satisfying life is inspirational. My time is more important than money. That house must go!

    For awhile a rock has been growing in my head…the need to start to write and share all the different kinds of thoughts I have that might help others see things in a different way (but not necessarily the right way). Thanks for your help in this, which I intend to present before the year is out!

    Are you accepting unsolicited comments on your own list? That P3 Planet Correspondent looks rockish to me. I see branches growing out of that tree (rock?)! And the body thing a bit more pebblish. Having said that, and unhumbly admitting my satisfaction with my own body for my age, I know that the key here is consistency. The body learns to reshape itself, but it takes patience. Pushing weights is great, but for a nomad watching $$, I know there are a lot of exercising methods that require no gym membership. Bottom line: it’s pebblish because it is not a grand endeavor as much as a daily habit that acquires the goal.

    BTW, I never consider it butting in when a friend suggests that my priorities are not in order. Please speak up friends! I may ignore the advice AND you might turn a light on. That’s what friends are for. And friends are a ROCK to me for sure.

  4. I absolutely agree with your analogy. Writing has been my rock since I discovered the power of words many decades ago. It’s now primarily fueled by my pebbles & sand–travel, friends and new experiences.

    As for your rocks, I haven’t yet heard back from you regarding my request for assistance with my website. I can help you achieve that goal, as well as fill in some “explore” and “meet new friends” pebbles,via email and in-person if you ever appear in Amsterdam.

  5. kimera azriel says:

    So many relaxing activities for me are body work outs. We went bowling the other day and I was quite sore from it later. That is a good sign. I like combining my rocks with my sand.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Yes, I heard something about glutes aching. That reminds me of another very important kind of sand that I enjoy. 😉

  6. Xavier says:

    The rocks, pebbles and sand, we all seem to meet along the dusty road of life… Rocks as an analogy for goals remind me of Sisyphus’s myth so beware that they don’t become a burden if pride gets in the way.
    The best rocks come up when paths change, when we follow a road toward an unexpected direction and look back at the rocks that we left behind. Also, enjoy the light that certain rocks take when seen by others. Some pebbles through your eyes might have become a great achievement for others and impacted their lives tremendously. Learn to like what others have made of your sand. Learn to like to help others build their rocks.

    1. Xavier says:

      As for the sand stuff:

      TV series:
      – The good wife (excellent dialogs and script) season 2
      – True Blood season 3 -> you gotta love Swedish actors 🙂

      Film to watch on DVD/VOD : Melancholia. enough said, Just watch it…


  7. Imogen says:

    I love this post. What a superb metaphor.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Thank you. I must go back into the woods and return those rocks now. (Yes, seriously; I went picking rocks in the woods.)

      1. Craig Brown says:

        If we are speaking literally, I went down to Madison beach where I spent many a wonderful summer afternoon in Seattle before I left nine years ago and collected a big rock. It still sits as a doorstop to my closet. Sentimental fool!
        And I also cherish my sand collection from beaches around the world. Not sand that works the glutes..but wait…I have a worldwide collection of that too. The figurative kind.

  8. Crys says:

    Absolutely agree with the analogy. Have heard it many times and it always rings true. One thing, sometimes you are handed a rock and you REALLY don’t want to take it. It’s too big, too ugly, not the one you wanted to pick, you can make any excuse you want not to accept it. But, if you do, if you trust yourself, if you take that damn rock and look it over, take care of it, polish it a bit, it could turn out to be the one rock to change your life in wonderfully profound ways you never anticipated.
    Peace, Crys

  9. J. Heider says:

    Congratulations on determining your priorities, helping others in understanding why they are important, and how to do it.

    Don’t second guess your rocks, pebbles, and sand based on the needs and wants of others It is valid to make your body a rock physically and metaphorically. (Don’t forget those glutes!)

    Looking forward to dancing with you somewhere in 2012. “Life may not always be the party we hope for, but while here, we might as well dance.”

    1. MB says:

      Your second sentence is what I really needed to hear/read right now about not second guessing our own rocks, pebbles, and sand based on the needs and wants of others. I am curious what you would do if your rocks were in totally contradiction of what your parents and family want for you? Just need advice for a personal dilemma I’m going through.

      1. Xavier says:

        dear MB I am not getting any mental image about you but you might be a person not easy to decypher anyway. my only piece of advice would be to trust your guts and double check your intentions with true friends. The most fulfilling paths go sometimes against what makes reasonable sense (e.g. Gustav’s example). I am cautious in giving you this advice because i dont want to lead you toward self destruction. I would need to know more about you to advise you better but this is outside the boundaries of this blog.
        As final parting words I have been disowned by my parents 15 years ago and havent talked to them since but if this is of any comfort I am still alive. my pursuit of happiness was just too strong but ouch! It did hurt a lot.

        1. MB says:

          I am sorry about the situation with your parents. I don’t know what happened, but I can never understand how parents can disown their own children. It begs to question why they had children in the first place. In my case it seems as though to control them and raise them to live out the lives they couldn’t have. I appreciate your cautiousness with your response. Don’t worry I don’t want to join a cult or engage in some type of self destructive behavior. I have actually been inspired by Gustav and want to leave the nest (even though I left before) and travel and explore long term. My parents think it is irresponsible while I don’t see how since I will have a job will be able to pay my own way. aj aj aj the joys of colliding with your parents dreams for you

      2. J. says:

        MB, Not knowing your situation, I hesitate to offer specific advice. My general thought is that if you are under-age, live with your parents/family, or are subject to safety issues if you were to contradict your family, then I would hesitate to go your own path of rocks, pebbles, sand, until you are in a safe stable environment; and able to spread your wings independently. If you are in that position now, it’s time to grow and find your own priorities. Good luck. Let us know what direction you take.

        1. MB says:

          Thank you, that’s good advice. I am over age 🙂 so that’s quite good, but in my culture that really doesn’t matter sometimes. Parents typically don’t want daughters to leave until they are married, although I have broken that rule before so I don’t understand why they are making things so complicated for me right now. But I will talk to them some more and see what comes of it. I’ll let you know which path I pursue.

  10. Jon says:

    Sounds like a good analogy. I was understandably thinking about the time of year for resolutions which many people are enamoured with.

    For me, I realised I was perhaps foresaking work for family so I need to spend more time at work and building a better career. I also realised I am not drinking as much as I used to so that needs some attention.

    Finally, in films (I was watching this one recently called “New York: I Love You”) it is very common for people to be seen smoking which looks really cool. So I think it is time to start smoking and see what it is like.

    1. Craig Brown says:

      Well, January 1 is obviously a better day than any other day to start anything important, agreed. I’d like to start having lots of unsafe sex this year. Texting while driving too, because I’m not a very good multitasker and this will force me to improve. I’ve never been fat…what would be fun to eat anything I want! Maybe I’ll publish all my kinky fantasies on my blog when I get it up. See what it’s like to be REALLY open and get lots of subscribers too.

  11. PDragon says:

    The analogy is great. I know that I need to do this sort of exercise. I have a projects folder in GDocs and it always seems to be filled with pebbles and rocks but I have yet to size them into categories.

    I think that the rock for last year was property and with that achieved a few more rocks need to be identified to change focus.

    Have you thought about the idea of getting rid of some old rocks that are taking up space? Old redundant dreams that fill the space but will never fit in with the life plan? Emptying the jar a little can make the jar lighter and make room for other rock and pebbles.

    1. Jon says:

      But to get rocks at the bottom out (the bedrocks) you would have to smash the jar. Then your rocks and pebbles go everywhere and inevitably you get sand in your foreskin.

      Be wary of abandoning old dreams unless they are completely obsolete. You might discard something that was important to your identity.

    2. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      That is a great point. In a way, that is what I am doing now. The book and getting fit are both old rocks that have been weighing heavy on my mind for a few good years. I always used to think, “I would do this if I had the time.” Well, I have time now, and it is time to put my dreams where my words were. And the honest truth is that if I don’t do it now, with nothing holding me back, then I will never do it and it is better, like you said PDragon, to accept that and move on.

      But not before I’ve made this one last honest go at it.

      1. Craig Brown says:

        I’m all for your fitness goal…never meant to put that down! It’s one of the best things I ever did for myself. But my only point is that consistency is the key here. Do something EVERYDAY, but don’t go crazy trying to get a super body all at once. You could burn out and drop it because it becomes overwhelming. Step by step. What I’m saying is something like your first attempt at the book. Go insane trying to achieve the goal too fast and it simply devours you and you stop. And what you eat is important to this goal too. OK, that’s my story and I’m stickin to it!

  12. kimera azriel says:

    I’m going to fill my jar with fireflies and dandylion seeds. Caterpillars and willow leaves. The breeze from a summer day.

    1. PDragon says:

      I think that the insect would eat the greenery and leave you with fat insects. At least one Bluebird of happiness is required to balance this.

    2. J. says:


  13. PDragon says:

    Rather than smash the jar, you could bore a hole near the rock and then use some sort of acid to remove it. Everything else should then re-organise, I call this the lobotomy method.

  14. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

    I think the analogy has broken out of the chains of reason and is rampaging out of all control at this point.

    1. PDragon says:

      I didn’t see any chains in the jar? What dot they represent? baggage? 😛

  15. Magnus says:

    I know a website you can fix .. Enough said mr “now I have oceans of time!” least the mms-script.., that could actually be a great thing for this site as well, where other nomads, you, folks using jars or just people picking up your former, now traveling, belongings can post mms on the “nomad wall” 😉 .. Come on, just fix it ffs 🙂

  16. Crys says:

    MB, I am a parent and so I know SOME parents are so terrified their children will make the wrong choice, maybe be hurt, they would rather keep them clutched tightly to them, wrongly thinking this is protection. They don’t realize THEY may be causing the real hurt. Open communication is essential, a well laid out plan to prove you know what you are getting yourself into will help. If they still fight you, then you need to ask yourself, which will hurt more, staying inside the blanket they have you tucked into, or throwing it off and possibly being in Xavier’s situation?
    What is the risk worth to you, can you live with it, which choice frees you, years from now which choice will be a regret? Parents are human, we have fears which sometimes are misplaced even if WE think they are best. Whatever you decide, be fierce in your decision. Life is short, it only comes around once.

    1. MB says:

      Thank you, I didn’t think of it in that way. I really do need to consider the risk involved in this decision and if it is worth it. I think my parents will come around, but I have decided to postpone my plans so they feel a little more comfortable. I spoke to my mom today and she is much more understanding then she was yesterday so I just want to be sure to have a better plan so they feel okay with what I am doing. Thanks again for such great insight into the parent mind. I know they just want whats best for me even though it might the opposite of what I think is best for me. It’s great that you realize that holding on too tight to your children could potentially harm them more, your kids are lucky.

      1. Crys says:

        MB, no worries about spelling or whatever. When a person is deep in thought and feelings, those little things don’t matter.

        1. MB says:

          Thanks, sometimes I do get lost in thought and lose the ability to filter incorrect grammar. Good thing Gustav can make it appear as it never occurred 🙂

  17. Jameson says:

    A nice little anecdote that is helpful in regaining perspective in our easily cluttered lives. Inspired me to jot down my own rocks, pebbles, and sand…I was able to easily sift through my list as these are things I think about and/or do daily, though I find it easy to lose sight on my big goals when I am bogged down in day to day rubbish. Good post!

  18. annie post says:

    Perhaps another rock for you would be to convert this idea into an app???

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Interesting idea. I’ve added it to the growing list of apps I might want to create in the future, when I get back into development.

  19. Arturo says:

    My favorite version of the story is the one with the beer included and saying “There is always room for a beer with your friends.” This really makes much sense for me, especially after some 5-6 years of wandering around the world. Some years ago I talked to a psychologist and he (I guess within the framework of his theory, which happened to be quite adequate for me as well) defined, that feeling stable and happy in the life is caused by three main determinants (another analogy is that three-legged tables are the most stable of them all): (1) relationship and family, (2) job, (3) friends. As we all know, the relationships come and go, so do the jobs. My idea is, that, at least I, would never try to apply the analogy of “come and go” to the friends. The best friends, I mean, of whom I’ve got no more than 10. Some of them I know for more than 20 or even 25 years (OK, I’m 40, I got acquainted with many of my friends between 15 and 20. If you’re around 30, that may be would not be your case;-).

    Of course, over lifetime there are situations when you grow too much apart from some of your friends (this is what I unfortunately experienced some weeks ago), but the phrase “there is always some space for a beer with friends” is almost magical. A beer (of coffee, or wine, or tea, or tequila, you name it) and a decent chat with a good friend is what has sometimes showed me my life from another perspective when I’ve been unhappy and miserable. Of course, it is always great to share the good moments of the life as well. Just without the bad moments you don’t know, who your real friends are…

    1. Magnus says:

      Interesting! I have a take on that even if friendship is said to be enternal it must be maintained from time to time. To make that happen after the certain age where people move to other countries, cities, raise family etc. traditions are created where attending specific events get as important as actually meeting physically at a ongoing basis. The friends growing up with Gustav have been together now since the age of 7 and are still best friends. We created a few of these events a year, the most important being the Lekvecka where we spend a couple of days together catching up and doing fun stuff together, very very important day for all of us. It is planned for the same week every year and each day is carefully planned in the calander that Gustav have made for the internet forum where we all have kept contact for soon to be 10 years. Looking forward to meet you there this year Gustav!

      1. Arturo says:

        Exactly! The “friendship must be maintained from time to time” is what I mean by “always find some time for a beer with your friends.”

        If we look at this story as an analogy it is not about the actual beer (or becoming an alcoholic), the same way as you are not stuffing your backpack with rocks while travelling round the world;-)

      2. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

        Nice guilt-tripping, Magnus! I shall indeed feel very low during this week, but alas, I shall remain in Argentina for this week. (I’m even stealing my brother from you as he and mum is coming to visit me.)

        The other big event that people gathers for is the day after Christmas, and I hope to make that this year.

        Yours truly,
        Mr Flake.

  20. […] story about filling up a jar with rocks and other crap until there’s no room left. If not, go here for the story. The space in the jar represents everything that needs to get done, and the big rocks […]

  21. Anne says:

    Mistakenly lost.. Cannot see the Rocks for the pebbles!! Damn…

    You make a good point kind sir.. & I have yet to restructure a life round those great boulders that initially just looked like obstacles 😉

    So half way through the year Im just re-prioritising.. Your blog has been of more use than you could possibly fathom.. Not to say all your dedicated readers & their antidotes… Hope your life’s work is continuing full steam!!

    Will catch you on another thread.. Have not yet completed the tour of your virtual landscape..

    1. I love it when a new reader finds my blog and decides to read not one but lots of articles, and I can see the progression via their comments! Thank you for your interest! Please share it with friends and social media if you find it worthwhile.

  22. pat ayo says:

    I was planning for an insight @ a new students welcoming program when I bumped into this site. I have read that story before but I now have a broader view of what the story really entail by you relating that as how it applies to you. god bless you.

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