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The secret of successful time management

Everyone I know is busy. Seemingly busier than they’ve ever been – myself included. Home life, work life, social life, they’re all competing for our time. And there comes a point when even fitting in the fun stuff can be exhausting, because we’re already worn out from trying to do all the other things, all the time. Sound familiar?

Person falling asleep at their desk clutching coffee

You’ve probably already encountered at least a few time management tools in your career. They’re great – they genuinely work. There are tools for prioritising your to-do list, techniques for saying ‘no’ when you need to, models for working out what’s really important to your role – and they all have value. I use at least three every single day. Despite this, recently I found myself needing more. Something to help me feel like I can regain control of my time. Like a lot of people, my role is complex. Every day I balance competing demands: dealing with things that come in that need my attention urgently, and the important things that don’t have deadlines, but ultimately are what I was hired to do. On top of this, I have my management responsibilities. I’m also parenting my one-year old… who has yet to sleep through the night, adding sleep deprivation into the pot, but that’s a different blog.

What I can’t control is the things that come up. What I can control is my reaction to those. What has helped me and hopefully will you, is two small but important changes in mindset:

  1. Being ok with not doing everything, and not knowing everything
  2. Understanding the importance of planning my time effectively (and doing it!!)

The first is tough, especially if you can’t bear not getting to the end of your list. Or, if like me, you suffer from analysis paralysis: I have an enormous appetite for information, and struggle to make decisions without knowing it all.

The second requires discipline. I recently ended up being so busy that I begrudged planning enormously because of the amount of time I was spending doing it. The secret though, is the more you do it the less time it takes. And the more effective you become at it, the easier it gets. The result? You get more of the most important things done, because you’ve identified them, chosen them, and focused on them. This, will make you feel better about having a full plate.

How do you plan effectively?

The tool I have been using recently that has been a game changer, is known as ‘Filling the Jar’[1].

The TLDR version:

Your life is one big jar. You get to choose how you fill it. The important things to you are your Big Rocks, then there are pebbles which also matter, the rest is sand and doesn’t matter much at all (these might be urgent, but less important to you). If you fill up the jar with sand and pebbles first, there’s no room for your rocks. But if you put in the Big Rocks first, you’ll find the sand and pebbles can fill the remaining space in between. So you fit more in and the most important things are taken care of.

What are your Big Rocks?

Your Big Rocks should be the things that matter most to you in your life and in your job. In your life, these could be things like your health, your family, your relationships, your dreams. You might also want to include any project-based things like moving home, learning a new skill, planning a gathering etc, etc. At work, your Big Rocks could be goals, objectives, projects, side-hustles, key results.

The Framework:

Every three months, set aside time to work through this framework. (It took me an hour the first time I did it.) Use your answers to help you work out what you intend to do about your Big Rocks. If something you identified earlier as a Big Rock turns out not to be something you’re going to do within the next 3 months, don’t put in the jar! Set yourself a reminder to consider adding it in the next time you do your review. And if something keeps being bumped, ask yourself, is this really a Big Rock? If you answer yes, you need to put some time into working on it.

Start by looking back at the last three months. For each of your Big Rocks, ask yourself:

  1. What have I achieved?
  2. What success have I had?
  3. What challenges have I had? How did I address those?
  4. What have I learned?
  5. What do I need to do differently?

Once you have answers for each of these, use them to help you look ahead to the next three months.

This time, for each of your Big Rocks, ask yourself:

  1. What do I need to achieve?
  2. What will success look like?
  3. What challenges may I have?
  4. How can I address those?

The process essentially guides you to map your experience in order to inform your intentions. This makes it easier to figure out what’s most important and what you need to do to make those important things happen. Once you’ve done your mapping, pull out actions and add them to your to-do list, your calendar, your reminders – whatever you use to manage your tasks.

I hope you find this framework helpful in reducing the stress you feel about your work, and find a little bit of peace amongst all the hustle. If you’d like to share your experience, and talk all things time management you can get in touch with me directly on

To find out how our experienced consultants can help you and your people discover a plethora of time management tools, contact us online or call for an informal chat on 020 7978 1516. You may also find our one day training on Time Management and Managing Multiple Priorities useful, where we provide a full toolkit for filling your jar.

[1] Also known as ‘The Rocks of Life,’ ‘The Pickle Jar,’ and ‘The Jar of Life’ Its origins are hard to find, though Stephen Covey credits it to an unknown professor in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (first published in 1989). Covey is responsible for the refined version we use today. Watch Stephen Covey explain the framework here (N.b. the video is more than a few years old!).

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Anna Esslemont

About Anna Esslemont

On any given day, Anna can be found working on a myriad of different projects ranging from big picture to small detail. As =mc’s marketing manager she’s responsible for...