One day, a teacher entered her classroom and placed a glass jar on the table. She put two large rocks into the jar until no more could fit. She asked the class if the jar was full and they all said, “Yes.” She responded, “Really?”
She pulled out a pile of small pebbles, added them to the jar, and shook it slightly until they filled the spaces between the rocks. Then she asked again, “Is the jar full?” The students agreed that it was. Next, she added a scoop of sand to the jar. She filled the space between the pebbles and asked the question again.
This time, the class was divided: some felt the jar was obviously full, while others were wary of another trick. Seeing this, she snatched a pitcher of water, filled the jar up and said, “If this jar is your life, what does this experiement show you?”
She continued, “The rocks represent the BIG things in your life – what you will value at the end of your life. The pebbles are the other things in your life that give it meaning. The sand and water represent the “small stuff” that fills our time. Now think about this: what would happen if I started with the sand or the pebbles?
I don’t know who first told this story, but it’s been bouncing around the internet for awhile. It’s a great representation of the problem so many people face in their lives. How do I stop wasting my time and energy on relatively unimportant activities and focus on what really matters? How do I become great?
Don’t Balance, Curate
People have been talking about work/life balance for a long time. There are two problems with that concept. First, balance doesn’t lead to greatness – it leads to trying to juggle too many things and ending up feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.
And second, in my decades of work as a therapist and then as an executive coach, I have never met a single person who had a truly balanced life. It’s a myth, and an unhelpful one at that.
So I’ve stopped talking about balance and focused instead on helping people to curate their lives. Just like a museum curator, you have to figure out what your life’s “exhibit” is about. Then you have to work at three tasks:
- Eliminate the activities that don’t belong in your exhibit.
- Learn to be “just good enough” at the activities that are necessary but relatively unimportant.
- Focus your energy on your greatness.
None of these tasks is easy. Many people have difficulty saying no. More people have difficulty accepting mediocrity in some things they do. But without developing those skills, you’ll never have the energy to achieve your greatness.
Greatness requires three ingredients: talent, opportunity, and fierce dedication. You don’t have much control over your talents – those are gifts. You have limited control over your opportunities, based on the circumstances of when and where you were born, what your family was like, etc. But you do have control over how you dedicate yourself to what really matters.
There are one, two, or maybe even three areas where you have the potential to be great. First, figure out what those are. Do experiments – try stuff out and see whether you’re any good at it and whether you love it. Sometimes it helps to think about the legacy you want to leave. When you figure it out, then dedicate yourself to your greatness goal.
See Also: 50 Ways to Strive for Excellence in Life
Greatness requires resilience – the ability to bounce back from setbacks and failure. Here’s an example: April was in college when she started her first business providing IT consultation, and she poured her heart into the business. In fact, she dropped out after two years so she could work full-time on the business and she gave it everything she had. She ate ramen, lived in a basement, and worked like a fiend.
The business failed. April barely skipped a beat. Within a few months she had decided to go back to college – and start another business. She took the lessons she had learned from her first failure, did it better the second time around, and created a business that is still thriving. That’s resilience.
Greatness also requires the ability to manage procrastination. Even when you’re committed to a big greatness goal, there may be times when you just don’t feel like doing what you have to do. Sometimes you need to cut yourself some slack and take a little break. But other times you have to give yourself a kick in the pants to get back on track.
Fortunately, psychologists have done a lot of research on how to motivate yourself. Here are two techniques that have proven effective. The first is giving yourself rewards.
In the hundred-plus years that psychologists have been studying human behavior, one finding is by far the most consistent. If you want someone to do more of something, reward them when they do it.
There are all kinds of complexities about what constitutes a reward for whom, how big the reward should be, what reward schedule works best, intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards, and so on. But we know for a fact that reward is the most powerful tool for modifying human behavior – our own and others.
So one way to get yourself to do what you need to do is to create a reward for yourself. If I work on this difficult task for the next ninety minutes without fooling around, I get to have a cookie, or take a walk, or listen to a podcast, or whatever. If I get this big project finished by Friday, I get to go out for a drink and a good dinner on Friday night. You get the idea.
Punishments also affect behavior, but they are much weaker tools than rewards. For example, some people set a goal for themselves, with the threat that if they don’t reach it they have to send a substantial financial donation to an organization they loathe.
Maybe this has worked for them, but frankly, I cannot imagine myself doing it. In my opinion, based on both professional expertise and personal experience, rewards are the way to go.
Another effective tactic is breaking down the task. Sometimes, a challenge just seems too daunting. The goal is too far off and the path seems impossible. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep putting one foot in front of the other even though you really want to achieve the goal.
The trick here is to break the task down into small, manageable chunks. All you have to do right now is complete the first chunk – don’t worry about the rest of it. That way you get to feel as if you are making progress. You may even want to create a visual graphic for yourself, like the image of a track on the treadmill screen that shows how far you have gone.
The good news is that curating your life is its own reward, because achieving greatness feels amazing. And although curating is not easy, it is doable.
GAIL GOLDEN MBA, Ph.D. is the author of CURATING YOUR LIFE: Ending the Struggle for Work-Life Balance (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, April 8, 2020). She is the Founder and Principal of Gail Golden Consulting, LLC, an international management psychology consulting firm, helping business leaders and organizations hit peak performance by drawing on her unique cross-background perspective as a licensed psychologist and an MBA-holding entrepreneur.