Nutshell: Filling the pickle jar: some prioritisation enemies and friends

Written by
Future Talent Learning

02 Dec 2019

02 Dec 2019 • by Future Talent Learning

Effective prioritisation can help us to achieve our to-do lists and create time to relax, but there are a few traps to avoid along the way.

Bestselling author Stephen Covey has a nice turn of phrase when it comes to prioritisation. His Pickle Jar Theory uses the analogy of rocks, pebbles and sand in a jar. If we fill the jar with sand (our less important tasks), there’s no room for the rocks (the most important tasks). But if we start by putting the big rocks in place first, we can fit pebbles in around those, then pour in sand on top, and even pour in some water before the jar is full.

It’s a nice image, bringing to mind an orderly and satisfying process that even ends up with that unexpected extra – the water – at the end. Used well, effective prioritisation can give us all pickle-jar satisfaction, helping us to make sense of even the most daunting to-do lists and the busiest of lives, leaving us happier and with more time for ourselves and our thoughts. 

And, as we’ll see below, there are any number of models and techniques we might use to improve our effectiveness when it comes to sifting the important from the less important and taking the right action.  

Why is it, then, that so many of us start each day with that empty jar and the best of intentions, yet end it with a jar full of sand and a pile of rocks that have nowhere to go? 

Decision paralysis, planning fallacy and cognitive bias

Prioritisation is hard because it’s about making decisions, choices about what’s important now and what can be dealt with later – or not at all. It’s about being prepared to say “no” and not being afraid to make the wrong decision. We may feel so overwhelmed by the range of tasks facing us that we suffer from decision paralysis, unable to fix on any solution or course of action.

Alternatively, we may fall prey to planning fallacy, leading us to make unrealistic assumptions about how long everything will take. We may find ourselves reacting and firefighting instead of following even the best-intentioned schedule. And, because we’re human, our cognitive biases will also get in the way.

Here are three common examples of filling the pickle jar the wrong way round (or even failing to fill it at all) which we’d do well to acknowledge and confront: 

1. Parkinson’s law of triviality: the bike shed effect

Parkinson’s law of triviality is about the human tendency to waste time on trivial details while important matters are not given the attention they deserve. It’s also known as bike shedding, because of the story used in 1957 by British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson to illustrate its effects. He asks us to imagine committee members who spends more time in their meeting discussing the construction of a small bike shed than the building of a nuclear power plant.  

Parkinson’s example may sound absurd, but the reasoning behind it is clear: we tend to focus on trivial issues because they are easier for us to understand, they require fewer resources to solve, they make us feel busy and important, but don’t require us to take as much responsibility. It feels good to make progress on any task, even those that are inessential.

‘Bike shedding’ is an important concept because it can help identify situations where we waste valuable resources on trivial matters, while neglecting important issues which require our attention – a real double whammy when it comes to time management. Nor is its effect limited to meetings or groups. We can all be guilty of preoccupying ourselves with the small, easy stuff. Think of the number of times we’ve felt that delusional sense of achievement when ticking off the more insignificant items on our to-do lists while leaving the really important – but harder – things untouched. 

Organisations must share the blame for this behaviour where cost-cutting leaves senior people to take on low-value tasks that could easily be done by junior staff. It’s clearly a false economy where leaders get pulled into doing basic admin due to understaffing or a lack of skills within their department.

2. Satisficing vs maximising

The difference between satisficing and maximising could be summed up by the French writer Voltaire, who said: “The best is the enemy of the good.”

Let’s start with some elementary economics, the theory that assumes that individuals are rational and make decisions with complete information to maximise how useful they’ll be for that individual. 

Maximisers are the people who look to squeeze every last drop of utility out of every decision, to make the very best decision they can. But wait, say the behavioural economists. This maximising behaviour has its limits: it’s simply not possible to achieve maximum utility by examining every available option when making a decision. Back in 1957, US economist Herbert Simon tackled this impossibility with a model that replaces utility maximisation with satisficing. 

Satisficers are individuals who will settle for a good enough option, not necessarily the very best outcome in all respects. It seems that satisficers are less likely to experience regret, even if a better option presents itself after a decision has already been made. The more perfectionist maximisers are more likely to have lower levels of happiness and self-esteem, and, faced with so many options they’ve unearthed and explored, remain anxious and regretful about potential missed opportunities. 

While a maximising approach might seem an optimal approach to decision-making, our energy may be better spent satisficing and appreciating what we have, rather than what we might have had. In wellbeing terms, maximising can make us miserable and anxious. In productivity terms, we are often better off taking the plunge with a 70% solution rather than waiting for all of the stars to align. 

3. Hyperbolic discounting

Agonising endlessly over decision-making is clearly self-defeating, but that’s not to say that we should always leap to focus on the easier wins. Hyperbolic discounting refers to our tendency to prefer a small, immediate reward today over a big reward in the future. Imagine the important presentation due next month that’s starting to loom large. Do we start working on it right away, even though it’s not due for three weeks? Or do we put it off in favour of filling in our expenses sheet, so that we can tick that task off the list and gain an immediate sense of satisfaction and accomplishment? We make these short-term compromises all the time.

While our brains might be wired to choose immediate sure-thing rewards over the potential of the future, by acknowledging and understanding hyperbolic discounting, we can learn to make better choices rather than simply going with our first instinct. 

For example, breaking down big work tasks into smaller chunks – each bringing a reward in its own right – will help to reduce the chances of us discounting a pay-off that seems too remote to impact on our behaviours now. So perhaps rather than regarding our task as being ‘to finish next month’s presentation’ we might think, “I’ll just get the PowerPoint template ready today”. That’s much easier to tick off the list. And more than likely, we’ll end up doing far more than that in any case.   

Three prioritisation models

While the cognitive odds might be stacked against us when it comes to setting priorities, the good news is that we can all enlist the support of some simple prioritisation models and techniques to help us steer clear of the trivial and to commit to doing the things that will help us to contribute the most at work.

1. The Eisenhower Matrix

Taking a leaf out of the book of an ex-US president and the supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe during the Second World War might not be a bad place to start. In a 1954 speech, Dwight D Eisenhower gave us an insight into how he organised his workload and priorities by quoting Dr J Roscoe Miller, then president of Northwestern University: 

I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” 

In essence, this is what we now call the Eisenhower Principle, the basis of the Eisenhower Matrix. 

Also known as the Urgent–Important Matrix, this helps us to decide on and prioritise tasks by urgency and importance, sorting out less urgent and important tasks which we should either delegate or not do at all. Prioritising tasks by urgency and importance results in four quadrants with different work strategies.

The first quadrant identifies ‘do first’ tasks, those important and urgent tasks that we need to do ourselves, and should be done today or tomorrow at the latest. However, this assumes that we understand what truly constitutes ‘important’ and ‘urgent’ – and the difference between the two terms. According to Covey, urgency relates to a task that demands immediate attention, while importance has to do with an outcome that contributes to an individual’s mission, values and high-priority goals. 

Important tasks are therefore associated with our own goals (rather than other people’s) and have clear value and ROI. Their time-sensitivity may be indicated by the level of discomfort we feel when we contemplate them; a sense of anxiety and dread might mean we have put them off for too long already. Sudden crises and incoming tasks demanding an immediate response often knock us off course, so it’s important to set deadlines for our own priorities, even when they are not formally required. Without these, we might forever delay important things in favour of ‘firefighting’.

The second quadrant is for tasks that are important but less urgent, and can be scheduled for action at an appropriate time. If we’re up and running with a good time-management regime, most of our work will be carried out here: anticipated and planned for. This quadrant is crucial, containing activities such as strategising, and the time we spend here should be ringfenced.

The third quadrant is for those tasks we can outsource or delegate. They’re still pretty urgent, but they can be carried out by others. Research conducted in the US and Europe by Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen found that knowledge workers spend an average of 41% of their time on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others.

As leaders, it’s best that we do things that are both mission critical and play to our unique abilities (the psychologist Donald Clifton observed that “a leader needs to know his strengths as a physician knows the instruments at her disposal”). And as we rise up within organisations, we need to know what to hold on to and what to delegate.

In his book Deep Work, professor Cal Newport suggests that for each core activity we do, we consider how long it would take a bright, non-specialist graduate to learn to do it as competently as we can. Some might take days or weeks (for example, crafting a sales PowerPoint deck), others might take months or years of hard-won expertise (deciding on the creative approach for an advert). He concludes that we should focus only on things that it would take the longest time to train someone else to do. The rest, we should delegate – being sure to brief people properly, of course, and bearing in mind subordinates’ capacity and capabilities. 

According to Birkinshaw and Cohen, these tasks can be further divided into ‘offload opportunities’ (things which can be delegated with little effort) and ‘long-term redesign’ (work that needs to be restructured or overhauled). The latter is helpful because it pushes us to reflect carefully on our real contributions to our organisations and towards our goals.

The fourth and final quadrant is called ‘don’t do’ and is there to remind us that there are some things we shouldn’t be doing at all. There’s likely to be a big overlap here with some of the distractions we might be looking to overcome. As management guru Peter Drucker put it: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

2. ABC time management

Are time management and prioritisation as simple as ABC? That’s what this model suggests. It involves some simple, straightforward steps: 

Step 1: Create a to-do list for the task you need to complete. 

Step 2: Categorise each task as A, B or C based on how urgent and important it is: 

Type A tasks are the most important and should be tackled straight away. 
Type B tasks need to be completed soon, but are not as urgent as the A tasks. 
Type C tasks can be left for those days when we have a bit more space in our schedule. 

Step 3: Reorder the list by A, B or C priorities.

Step 4: Tackle the A list first, starting with the single most important task and numbering the rest in order of importance. Only move on to B tasks once you’ve completed the A list, and hold off on C tasks until the B list has been tackled. (You may rarely get to the C tasks but that’s ok).

Step 5: Revisit the list daily as tasks are completed, new ones are added, and B and C tasks are reallocated if and when they become more important.

The idea is to develop the conscious habit of identifying and actioning our highest priority tasks first. 

3. The 1-3-5 model

Having a to-do list is one thing; getting through the tasks on it, quite another. The 1-3-5 model is another way of identifying priorities, this time by keeping daily to-do lists to just nine items. It’s based on the idea that we simply cannot achieve an endless number of things each day. Rather, we should focus on getting one big thing, three medium things, and five small things done instead.

It may sound a bit constraining, but the trick is to be flexible with its use. If you have a day of meetings coming up, cut yourself some slack with fewer items. If you tend to have a lot of unexpected tasks thrown at you, try leaving some of your task slots blank to fill in as things come up.

Making the most of the time we have

It’s also possible to use these – and other models – in tandem; for example, using the Eisenhower Matrix to identify key priorities, and then 1-3-5 to identify that single most important thing that just has to be done first today. 

For ancient thinkers, making the most of our time assumed a moral dimension, a compunction to spend our limited time on earth to be and do the best we can be and do. Death was never far from their minds. Marcus Aurelius was not untypical when he wrote: “Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.” 

That might be slightly exaggerating the importance of that presentation we need to work on next week with Dave from Accounts, but the essence holds true. There are only 24 hours in a day; how we use them matters not just for our work, but for ourselves. Being able to prioritise our work effectively helps not just to get the work done, but to live our best lives, carving out much-needed time for rest, recuperation and reflection. 


Test your understanding

  • What does ‘hyperbolic discounting’ mean?
  • In which quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix should we ideally be spending most of our time?

What does it mean for you?

  • Do you typically tend to focus on urgent or important tasks? What implications might that be having for your general productivity and sense of wellbeing?
  • Reflect on which of your typical daily tasks you could potentially redesign, restructure, drop, delegate or automate, giving you more time to focus on important tasks.



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