Five Big Rocks Make Quandrants a Quandary

It was one of those introspective thoughts that circles all year around women’s groups and comes in for a landing in January.

“I’ve got my life down to five big things,” Nan announced. “And everything else is nothing. Just five big things. Now I have time for what’s important.”

She added that her husband, who happened to be one of the big five, had sighed and said: “About time.”

The rest of us, fresh from drafting our New Year’s resolutions, squinted politely and kept quiet. All but Tonya, who said Nan’s comment reminded her of the jar with the rocks.

“You know. The Stephen Covey thing. You have this big jar and all this sand and all these pebbles and some water and some big rocks.” She paused, her eyes circling the room.

“If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you can’t get the rest in.”

“Aaah!” we said between bites of chocolate chip pie.

Then someone broke the sugar spell with a sharper, more threatening thought.

“Let’s all bring in rocks next month! Five rocks apiece! One for each important thing in our lives. And we have to tell what it is.”

No one else seemed to flinch. But like a true-false test with five 20-pointers, the exercise seemed troubling during dessert, confusing on the way to the car and completely daunting by the time the garage door went up.

I collared my husband and explained the problem. “Is it OK to have one rock called ‘family’? Or does there need to be a rock for each person? And if there does, haven’t I almost used mine up with a husband and three kids? And what about my mom?”

He shrugged as if I’d come looking for a pair of lost shoes.

“Sorry,” he said, “I don’t know what to tell you.”

The obvious source was Stephen Covey himself, so I dug through my private stash of self-help books. One of them, I knew, had the jar that Tonya had remembered.

Sure enough, on page 89 of a blue-and-red volume was a sketch of a pitiful little jar filled up to its neck with water, pebbles and sand. And on page 90, the triumphant jar with several big rocks, water, pebbles and sand.

The sketches were tucked in a chapter called “Quadrant II Organizing,” which explained that everything we do belongs in one of four “quadrants.” It said that by paying attention, it is possible to make time for important but not urgent (Quadrant II) activities like relationships, prevention and values clarification. The big rocks.

Quadrant II activities, it seemed, should sometimes trump those in Quadrant I, which were urgent and important, like deadlines and crises. And most times, they would hopefully also trump those in Quadrant III (urgent but not important) as well as those in the dreaded Quadrant IV (not urgent and not important either), like watching too much TV or taking “some” phone calls.

By the end of the chapter, I was still confused about whether every family member was a rock. And I was in a quandary over quadrants. And I wondered which phone calls we were talking about and how much TV.

For example, what if I watched a really bad movie (Quadrant IV, timewaster) that I’d heard was uplifting (Quadrant II, empowerment) with a friend (Quadrant II, relationships) that wasted her time too (Quadrant IV, trivia) but that we talked about afterwards (Quadrant II, values clarification).
Could a bad movie become a big rock?

To make matters worse, the book’s sample calendar pages showed several different Quadrant II events every day. This could mean a jar for every day of the week, different rocks in every jar, all of which would be too heavy to carry to the meeting.

As with most of life’s dilemmas, the solution was obvious: Shopping (Quadrant II, true re-creation).
With a brand new planner ($51.93) to go with my Palm Pilot, I acquired not only a calendar but a “weekly compass” in a see-through pocket that had a place for listing the big rocks of the week, all printed on paper with beautiful pastel pictures of the seasons of the year.

I still don’t know how to use it. Every time I try, the pictures of yellow snow-capped tulips and sun-kissed blueberries urge me to forget what’s on the schedule and go take a walk.

I don’t know if a walk is a rock, but it’s the best self-help I know.

Copyright Pat Snyder 2003

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