“The Pickle Jar Theory” is one of my favorite tools for teaching how to effectively prioritize. I wish I knew who came up with the concept as I would love to give them credit!
A PICKLE JAR? REALLY?
Yes! When I teach this strategy, I use a real pickle jar (it took years for the smell to go away); even when I travel to lead workshops. As I am writing this, my pickle jar and I are currently in Dallas. There is no substitute for the real thing and experiencing the hands-on activity creates a memory that is more impactful than just a PowerPoint slide.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
To start, I ask for a volunteer to assist in the demonstration. I show them the empty pickle jar and ask them to fill it with ping pong balls.
The original version uses rocks but ping pong balls are more practical to carry around!
I instruct the volunteer to fill the jar so the lid can close without crushing any of the ping pong balls.
Then I ask if the jar is full. Most people know that something is up at this point and the most common answer is “I can’t fit more ping pong balls but something else would fit.” The ping pong balls (or rocks) represent the most important things.
Then we use some glass beads (or pebbles) that fall through and fit between the ping pong balls.
These represent the slightly less important things.
The rocks are followed by sugar (or sand.) Now we are getting to the more trivial tasks that can often consume a lot of time.
Finally, whatever space is left can be filled with water. These are the least important things that we do. I skip the step of actually having the participant pour in the water as it can get very messy!
WHAT’S THE POINT?
One of my favorite aspects of the pickle jar theory is that the jar can represent “work” or it can represent “life.” If you fill the jar with small things (water or sand) there will be no room to fit in the big things (rocks, pebbles.)
Applying this to work, we can see how it would be easy to fill our days answering email or attending countless meetings. But, at the end of the day, we are likely to feel that we have not actually accomplished anything substantial if we have not taken care of some rocks.
When it comes to life, many people view family as the big rocks…their most important thing. If we busy ourselves with work, we can easily crowd out the opportunity to share quality time with loved ones.
When you look at your upcoming week or month, are you making time for the most important things (the rocks) in your life? If you don’t block the time for what you truly value, your work and life (your pickle jar) will be filled with the less meaningful activities like water and sand. How are you filling your pickle jar?
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