Prioritize Your To-Do List

Get It Done

Rocks-Pebbles-Sand Approach

The more internet searches I do, the more I realize that there are a whole lot of ways that people work out their task lists. One of the most simple and most effective is the to-do list. Making a to-do list works for a lot of people, because not only can you see everything that needs to get done, but you can also add in extra tasks easily, and you feel super accomplished to mark a bunch of things off your list.

Sometimes, a to-do list can feel totally overwhelming. You have this huge list of everything, but where do you even begin to accomplish them? There is a way to write a to-do list that prioritizes your biggest goals. Call it what you will, but I’ve understood it best as the Rocks-Pebbles-Sand approach.

Here’s how to start making your to-do list better. 

Go on and make a massive, chaotic brain dump of everything in your brain that you need to get done, big projects and small. There is no need to organize it in any way whatsoever at this stage, just list every little thing in your brain. Then go down the list and evaluate each item by importance. It’s that easy, and that hard.

You can actually accomplish this evaluation in several ways. The goal, really, is to identify what’s important and batch these items into groups. I’ve seen people who attach different highlighted colors to each item. Some people like to use numbers to assign significance, either by assessing most important as 1 and working their way down to 1 million-bazillion or by simply deciding it’s a 1 task (super important, or a really big project), a 2 task (medium importance, or a medium-sized task), or a 3 task (not important, or a really small quick task). I’ve seen people who simply determine whether a task is hot or cold.

Keep in mind that a quick task, like scheduling a dentist appointment, might not be a #3 task if you’ve been experiencing tooth pain all weekend. The same can be said for a big task that might look like a #1 because of its immensity, like cleaning out your shed, if there’s really nothing in there that you need right now. Ask yourself how important and pressing it truly is, and rate these tasks accordingly.

Any of these ways can be super helpful in making decisions and getting things done. For instance, you can decide which debt to pay down with your bonus money by assessing which of them is most important to pay down, has the highest interest rate, or will help you the most in the long run. Anytime you are able to make this assessment, it will help, but the key is how to approach the tasks when your list is complete.


Let’s talk a bit about the Rocks-Pebbles-Sand Approach. 

Imagine you have an empty jar to fill that represents the entire time you spend doing things every day. You have rocks, pebbles, and sand to fit into this jar which represent all the tasks on your list today. 

The rocks are your biggest, most important tasks, or the ones with the closest deadlines. These are the ones you labeled most important, #1 tasks.

The pebbles are medium sized tasks that you could probably do but they aren’t pressing. Again, these represent your #2 tasks, the ones that aren’t pressing or aren’t too difficult to accomplish.

The grains of sand are the smallest, quickest, and easiest tasks or the ones that you have judged are least important. These ones you’ve labeled as your #3’s. 

Remember that any empty space in this jar at the end of your day amounts to time that you wasted. The more empty space in this jar, the worse you know you will feel at the end of the day. So you have this jar to fill and a ton of things to put into the jar, but how do you accomplish it?

You could fill the entire jar with sand. Some people might actually prefer this at first if their to-do list is really overwhelming them because they’d mark a ton of things off their list, and have no wasted space. The problem is that if you fill your jar only with sand, you would have no room for your rocks, your really big important-looking rocks that are sitting there outside of your jar staring at you and judging you.

Honestly, you should fill the jar with rocks first in order to have room to fit them in the jar at all. This means working on the most important task first thing. Keep in mind that you can only fit one or two rocks in the jar in a day, but if you don’t put them in there first, there will be no way to get them in the jar. Know too, that you don’t have to accomplish the entire task today, but you need to put effort towards it first thing.

Looking at your rock jar, you’ll notice there is a ton of empty space there. If all you do is one or two big tasks, you won’t do much else. Again, you could fill the rest of the space with sand, but what happens to the adorable pebbles that are giving you their sad googly eyes right now? When do they get your attention?

You want to start with the rocks, and then add in as many pebbles as you can, and fill all the excess spaces with sand. This provides you with the best time management and in this way, you can squeeze the most productivity out of your day.

Here’s what a full day using this method would look like.

You have your brain dump list, and you’ve categorized everything on it as a rock, a pebble, or a grain of sand. If you made this list the night before, be sure to go over it again, and add anything new, or anything you missed the first time around.

Now, work towards your rocks first thing in the morning, or before doing anything else when you get to work. Don’t bother checking emails, or responding to texts. Get your deposit to the bank. Call that bigwig customer and get an appointment scheduled. Write your novel. Create. Start right in on getting your big tasks out of the way.

When you finish your rock tasks, or when you feel like you just can’t even with them anymore, move on to the pebbles, systematically going down the list and doing them as they are listed. Unload the dishwasher. Update your customer spreadsheet. Get a few chapters edited. Upload your artwork backlog. Aim to do as many of these things as you possibly can.

If you have a few minutes of downtime to spare, for instance, standing in line to get coffee for the office, use them to mark off some of the sand grains as well. You can totally check and respond to emails while waiting for 5 iced coffees and your lunch bagel. Want to respond to someone who has a question about your business hours on social media? Go ahead. Call your mom back on your morning commute. Find your little down moments and use them to their fullest.

In any given day, start with the biggest tasks and let them create a wave of motivation that swiftly moves from task to task, taking everything else along with their current. This is the way to fill your jar completely full so that you can get the most done, like the badass you are.

Remember: You can’t wait for your dreams, you have to go after them with a club… or something like that.

What does your task list look like?

How do you motivate yourself into getting things done?

Let me know in the comments below!

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