Time Management: The Pickle Jar Theory

by Jeremy Wright

111 Reader Comments

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  1. Interesting. A dynamic jar? Perhaps a bit too convenient?

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  2. The example of filling a jar with rocks, pebbles and water is mentioned in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which adovcates the same principles, minus the pickle metaphor. This is nothing new.

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  3. This concept is covered extensively in the books First Things First and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Nothing groundbreaking here.

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  4. …your project manager decides to keep throwing you new big rocks and forgetting about the old big rocks and expecting you to turn the pickled pancakes into glass jars… err… crunch explode mmmm panickles

    Sorry… What I mean is time management and planning is all fine and nice. But what happens when things change so fast that a plan is old five minutes before it was written? How do you bring order to chaos to the point where a plan actually helps.

    I guess I could wave pickles at my clients until they all stopped bleating and either passed out or were too busy eating pickles… mmmnnn

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  5. …anyone elses mind as they read that article? It justs seems very Dilbertesque. Especially the “enduring leadership course” bit. :-D

    Just an observation of course. I probably should run it by marketing before I go public with it.

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  6. A great reminder; thanks, Jeremy.

    I’m a klutz. I tend to break jars when I have rocks around.

    I sometimes break big rocks into smaller rocks.

    I prefer the jar half empty; room to choose which rocks go in.

    Half empty, if I shake up the jar, the jar breaks.

    If flow state is desired, the pickle jar becomes vital. Time shifting tools (email, voice mail) defer interruptions to your flow.

    Sometimes my day feels like a ketchup bottle with a tiny opening in the top. Hard to get anything in, let alone something large.

    Ever pickled,

    - phil

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  7. To Jeremy and other web authors:

    With all of the “been-there-done-that” posts regarding this article, I think it shows the importance of citing references within the article itself when the idea presented is not your own. Early in your article, you say this is the latest time management strategy you’ve heard. This is a perfect place to put in a reference to that time management theory. Mention Aesop, mention Steve Long, and mention (or put a link to) the dozens of books that also cover it. And do it early in the article.

    Here are three good reasons for doing this:
    1) Readers enjoy being in control. If the scope of the article is presented at the beginning, readers can decide early on if the subject matter is old hat for them. Furthermore, those who do stick around for the whole article can’t complain that the topic is old. You warned them!

    2) Readers like to read. If the topic can be found elsewhere in greater detail or with a different spin, let your audience know. You obviously found this theory to be a lifesaver. Undoubtedly, others will, too, and will appreciate any help in finding the material. Personally, I would enjoy knowing which of Aesop’s fables this theory comes from. I think that’s fascinating.

    3) Finally, it adds to your credibility as an author. Readers trust those who’ve done their research. Enough said.

    Best of luck in your future endeavors,

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  8. Well said and true. To be perfectly honest, here is why references weren’t included:

    1. Steven Covey’s principle is different. I knew about it, but it isn’t entirely the same in my opinion. I suppose I could have mentioned him, but it would have lost some of the metaphorical “atmosphere” which I do think the article captures.

    2. I hadn’t realised until a friend told me later that Aesop’s fables was related to this.

    So, while I could have mentioned Steve Long, the reality is that he didn’t make this up either. It’s a concept which has, as others have already said, been around forever. I didn’t, and still don’t, think the article’s “atmosphere” would have been any better off had I cited references and so on. It’s an editorial piece mainly, and it’s not often you find references in editorial pieces :)

    I also realise it is of a bit of a different flair than most ALA pieces, however I’m happy with how it stands. In fact it is one of the articles I am most proud of in my repertoir :)

    Could I have saved people a little time by employing the “newspaper-writing” philosphy of “given them the juice first and then expand on it”? Yeah, maybe, but I fear I may have alienated the readers who really wanted to read it through but wouldn’t normally have (and there are several posters just like that).

    Anyways, I digress. Most of your points are right and are entirely bang on with 95% of articles, I just don’t feel I could have done much at the time of writing, and I’m still not sure I would change anything knowing what I know now.

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  9. You don’t fit as many (enjoyable) pebbles in once you’ve clogged your jar with rocks. Work and fun are still a zero sum game!

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  10. Off-topic for sure, but I so hear that… Clients/superiors just loove to invent new sh**…features – instantly rendering ever-so-doable plans obsolete (“scope creep” in project management jargon). And projects are of course situations where everyone involved have their own idea of what the rocks are, how long it’ll take to fill the jar, &c.

    In your situation (Paul Watson’s, post “What happens when…”), clients are one thing (“Gimme!”), but when a PM acts like you describe, he/she has lost control.

    My $0.02 on project management and the Jar Theory (OT, old news to some, you’re doubly warned):

    It seems (esp. in IT/web development) like our project goals increasingly become integral parts of our projects: Only towards the end do we know what the real goals of the project are (or should’ve been).

    In my own, limited experience, I’ve found very few methods to gain control over these problems, but here’re some (and my workaholic dumb self l spent a couple of hours of vacation-time toying with Jar Theory compliance, thanks a LOT Jeremy ;), well it’s raining so..):

    ¤ Create plans with many short, parallel phases [Core concept of the “Wavefront method”/“Leaning wave”/“Sneda vÃ¥gen”, dev. by Prof. Lars Philipson in “The Seven Week Microprocessor Project” (univ. course at LTH, Sweden, www.lth.se)]
    – Jar Theory: Several smaller, more manageable jars together comprising the project (e.g. one for marketing, prototyping, &c.). Focus on putting the rocks into the jars ASAP. As IT/web projects are particularly sensitive to time, tech becoming obsolete &c., it’s good minimizing exposure to this factor.

    ¤ Introduce the “Version 1.1 Concept” to the client: “This is a good feature, it won’t fit our agreed upon budget&schedule; (v 1.0), but let’s plan now for this in a follow-up phase/project (v 1.1)”
    – New jar (no pun intended), new possibilities.

    ¤ Determine your project’s driving constraints (what you’re measured against): Time, Cost or Quality. They change, watch them ceaselessly and nag about ‘the driver’: “You can have it fast, you can have it cheap, you can have it good. Now pick 2.” [From Ron Black’s book “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Project Management…”, www.ronblack.com]
    – Time: to fill the jar; Cost: of people filling the jar, shaping of rocks, purchase of rocks; Quality: shaping the rocks to optimize use of space, decrease likelihood of breaking the jar.

    ¤ Stress the /obvious/ correlation between time and effort (A takes X weeks, A+a takes X+x weeks).

    ¤ If you can’t measure a goal, it’s no good and will lead to scope creep.
    – How many rocks we got? This jar is like a balloon, we have no limits!

    ¤ Guard your agreed upon scope with your life (at least fight for it with zeal)
    – There’s no Way we can fit your Asteroid into our current jar!

    I’ll probably begin using “Jar Theory” when discussing certain things with my team and clients. Imagine talking about hyper-abstract search-engine optimizations to a client saying “Rocks too jagged, they be crashing the Jar, we need more Oracle-masons, U dig?” Powerful stuff!

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  11. Thanks for the article, Jeremy.

    I always get stuck not knowing what the most important tasks are for the day. Maybe that’s why the smaller tasks dominate my time.

    The Pickle Jar is important. But so are the Pickles. sigh

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  12. Hi, I already had heard about the pickle jar theory, but it was known as the “beer theory”. Let me explain: there is this philosophy teacher explaining the theory to his students, pouring big rocks, little rocks, tiny rocks and at the end sand in the pickle jar showing how there was place for everything in life, given that the right priorities were chosen. In this case big rocks were such things as family and friends, little rocks were work, house… and so on. But then a student stands up, opens a can of beer and pours the beer in the pickle jar “filled” with rocks, sands, pebbles and so on… then he says “no matter how your life is full, there is always space for a beer”.
    Of course the story is fake, because students don’t go around (or do they) with cans of warm beer, but it is surely interesting!

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  13. I like that this technique will be almost impossible to get out of my head. I’ve stuffed a lot of self-help systems (time management, exercise, diet, this, that) into my skull, and they all leak back out through the holes. That pickle jar isn’t going anywhere.

    I’m curious about the “ownership” of this technique. Seems like you should have given some kind of attribution. Out of courtesy if nothing else. I don’t mean to point a finger. I’m just wondering aloud about rights, fair use, and so on. I don’t know much about all that yet.

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  14. It doesn’t directly relate, but, here’s that fable:

    The Crow and the Pitcher

    A crow perishing with thirst saw a pitcher, and hoping to find water, flew to it with delight. When he reached it, he discovered to his grief that it contained so little water that he could not possibly get at it. He tried everything he could think of to reach the water, but all his efforts were in vain. At last he collected as many stones as he could carry and dropped them one by one with his beak into the pitcher, until he brought the water within his reach and thus saved his life.

    Necessity is the mother of invention.

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  15. I didn’t realize that pancakes came in jars.

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  16. This is… Well, just ask yourself what stuff you would do that could improve your job if you had an extra hour per day. Ask yourself and write down a list. Some people may do nothing, which is good, some people may relax for an hour, others may study for something, some others may spend time with their family, etc. Everything we do is what is regarded as urgent and important. The list you have just made is what’s important but not urgent. If you spend an hour a day doing just that, your life and job just might get better. The pickle theory made me laugh tough…

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  17. Oh, You Need It!
    I read one post where someone talked about how they only worked on one project, therefor may not need time management. Oh, you need it. It is the small, personal and descreet time thieves that kill your productivity. Or, in my case, it is the one huge project poorly mapped that steals personal time. One of the reasons employers still have large complexes, offices and desktimes (schedules) instead of letting all their ‘developers’ just do it from home, is they know the value of a controled work environment. They do a lot of the time management for you. However, people often let their focus screw around with their productivity, because they do not ‘chunk’ or set aside time slots for specific work. It is lose, or I like to refer to is as weak, control of time that allows a day of work to be unproductive. Perhaps, you may need a lesson in understanding what productive means first. Many people do not realize a difference between a productive day and an unproductive day (a day spent in the zone), and that allows them to believe time management is not essential.

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  18. My previous post here has disappeared for some reason. Anyway, what I said was, there a zillion worthwhile self-help techniques, but this one stands a chance of being used for more than a week because it’s impossible to forget. One, because its logic is not only convincing, but kind of funny. And two, to remember the whole theory and instruction set you just have to remember you’ve put a pickle jar full of creek materials into your head.

    The other thing I said was that I thought the article here should have given some attribution. It was gleaned from someone’s seminar. Whose? Even if those people got it out of the public domain or from some other seminar, I think the fair thing would be for the present writer to name his source.

    I don’t mean this as fingerpointing. This just seems to touch on questions of fair use and web etiquette, which I’m doing some thinking about these days.

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  19. No, my previous post didn’t disappear. It went to the end of the list. Dumb are us. I didn’t see there were more pages after the first one. Sorry to double up on my comments.

    I see there has already been a discussion on citing sources here. I read the thread and still think a sentence saying “this was taken partly from so-and-so’s seminar” would have been easy, painless and better. Both better form, and better writing.

    I like the author’s writing style and did find this article useful. But strictly apart from the issue of fairness, I felt as a reader that an important piece of information was missing. I think there’s a lot of ground between fully footnoting an article and giving no sources at all. A brief mention of the source is easy to include, and it’s a great clue for me as a reader as I try to relate it to other things I know. Maybe I know something about the other thinking that comes out of that seminar, for example. Maybe I want to know something about this idea’s pedigree. Maybe I want to track down more of the same kind of stuff from the same source.

    Overall, the lack of attribution here feels a little unprofessional. I’m speaking partly as a former newspaper reporter. I think the old rules of crediting your sources exist for some good reasons. It’s the fair way to treat your source, it shows respect for the thinking reader’s need to be discerning and see connections, and insofar as source attribution is considered standard journalistic practice, it’s one indication (not a guarantee, of course) that the writer is a workmanlike thinker and can be trusted.

    It was a good essay, but it had this flaw, in my opinion.

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  20. Not a bad article. Now, if it had only gotten to the point sooner, I may have gotten some work done today.

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  21. Pickle jar or not. I think that the key element to good time management is to recognise two things. Happiness + Clarity.
    If your own needs as a person are met before you become a cog in a machine, youll be a happy cog (scuze the pun Zeldman!)

    If your a happy cog and you know what you should be doing in a priority order (what shit is important and what are the timeline requirements) then you’ll know what to attack first.

    A developers life is often out of balance (too much work not enough play) this renders a person as non effective by comparison to those who have gone for a walk, accepted that they dont want to work all the time and that games often are more fun, and yes we all deserve rewards.

    A happy developer with clarity and a serious mind, is hard to keep down. Get one thats overworked, stuck in the sand and lacking in personal balance, reward, and clarity, then see the timemanagement concept staying as a concept, instead of being an aspect of personal achievement and productivity.

    I survive on passion and grit when I am out of balance, have no clarity left and am running low on rewards. I know when in balance with clarity I get alot more done. I can see the small and big picture.

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  22. This is a brilliant idea, and it seems that I’m one of the people who haven’t heard it before (or perhas I’m just slow, or English)

    Anyway this seems liek a useful thing to use to plan my days as now it the summer break from uni, i often find myself drifting through the day and ending up getting annoyed at getting nothing done.

    Thanks again

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  23. suck my rocket, you are a fake

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  24. Start with the big dill peppers. Then do your large pickled onions, followed by the little silver pickled onions, and some cocktail gherkins. Then do the capers. Little bits of unidentifiable brown gunk should be left till last, and avoided if possible.

    Our main problem is stopping ourselves tinkering for hours on a new idea which the client hasn’t really asked for, but will make their site so much better… we justify it by saying ‘but this will be a thing we can use on lots of sites, so it’s worth putting unpaid hours in… [Noooo! it is unidentifiable brown gunk. Leave it! Leave it!)

    Again, like the beer one best. :o)

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  25. Well I have been trying this’ pickle jar theory’ , but dint have a name for it. The real problem is , how to get yourself prepared to follow a time management system.

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  26. Saw a movie that had this demonstrated…. can’t remember – have to file it with all of my own strange thoughts…. like the poor sap who has to write the year 19534 a few thousand years from now on his checking account….

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  27. I tried it today, and it worked wonderfully. Thanks thanks thanks! Rocks and pebbles allow for qualitative evaluation of what must be done (urgency and time required) which is pretty efficient.

    Great article!

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  28. Structured Procrastination is an interesting theory, only slightly related to the Pickle Jar but still good. I’d been practicing it my whole life, unaware.

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  29. “800: figure out rocks for the day (literally, this is what it says!) and deal with emergencies”

    ……the opening is fluid …..

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  30. This sounds great,
    I’m usually such a scatterbrain something like this might just work.

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  31. This is a very good theory. Reading it, I was thinking “yeah, right”, but reflecting, I realized that most of the time I have my work done right in the opposite way: I get all the small junk done first, so that my mind is free to concentrate on the main job and I know I can spend as much time as I like for it. I wonder why, but it always worked… condition is, of course, that you can plan how many time you need for the small stuff to get done, and make sure it doesn’t fill the whole day…

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  32. This time-management theory is rather brilliant in its simplicity and quite applicable. Some have speculated that the only weakness in this theory is its inability to cover the lifestyles of every age and type of occupation. I say that the only thing limiting its relevance is your own imagination. It’s flakey, but stay with me. I have always had a theory that everything in the world was either a smaller or larger version of everything else, and often both at once, in once sense or another. (I’m probably not the only one to come up with this, but…) So if you interpret this theory very loosely it’s very useful.

    For instance, one of the first comments mentioned that: “assigned to a program per week (or something like that), then your day would be filled with only one project.” Aha! True, one project within that day, but what about within that project? I’ve done a fair amount of programming in my day (I’m 17) and it seems to me that within one project there are many rocks, many pebbles.

    No theory will be right for everyone or every situation, but if you need something like Time Management to get you through your day, this is perhaps one of the best options, especially if interpreted loosely.

    … Wow. Did that make any sense?

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  33. I saw this on tv! On some movie or something.. and I thought it was very clever. It’s really a great idea, although I don’t have lots to do usually so I don’t need time management atm, but if I did this one is seems the most realistic. Afterall, I would not go doing something like basing activities or things I want to do around a crazy time management schedual. That’s insane.. but this one is realistic. As I said. O_o

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  34. I think the system is extremely flexible. The only thing that people should realize is that they need to do some “customization”. In other words, what works well for one, will not necessarily work well for another, but after some customization the system should for well. So, don’t be afraid, test various systems but stick to one that works best.

    Happy time management.


    Founder and director,
    Bealte Web Studios
    mailto: george@bealte.com

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  35. Nice one! pickle jar theory has just given my a great little piece for my presentation on time management. Now all I need is another jar on public speaking skills!!!!

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  36. Great Site…..You arn’t going to believe this. But I was actually looking for a Pickle site. I can’t believe it either I hate the little things! We have 9 kids and thought it would be a good idea to put in a garden, thinking it would save us alot of TIME…. Soooo instead of taking that time to go to the store…. we planted cucumbers.. LOTS of cucumbers..Now I have to find out just what you do with literally hundreds of them…. I’m thinking take the kids….take the veggies… put them near the street (not to near) and they can enter the business world. I like your theory…I would help the average person. Now back to finding the Real pickle story…..Judy

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  37. How is this a new concept just because it’s called a ‘Pickle Jar’? Rocks, water, and sand aside – this is nothing other than prioritizing.

    Beaurocrats piss me off. This article wasted 5 minutes of my pickle jar organized life – uhhh – this would be considered water I guess.

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  38. I think the article inadvertently somewhat changed the point. If you fill a jar with water, you’re not filling it with the same amount of water that would go in after putting in the rocks, gravel, etc. You’re putting MORE water in. Hey, maybe that’s a good thing, right? Who are we to say rocks are better than water? ;-)

    The point in the version I heard is about arranging things in a finite space (representing time). You put the rocks in first, then gravel, then sand. If you start with the same amount of each and put the sand in first, then the gravel, you will not have room for the big rocks. It’s about how you arrange things: Schedule the big-ticket items first and you can pick up the smaller items as time permits (ie, fitting the gravel and sand in the spaces left between the large rocks). It’s about getting more into the jar (or more things done in your life).

    I’m sure everyone got the main point though. And I guess it is generally true that once we can’t fit the big rocks in we tend to go get some extra water to fill the space. I’m doing it right now. ;-)

    Yes, Steven Covey had this in his book and used to preach it a lot. There used to be a “Seven Habits for Highly Effective People” add-in for Microsoft Outlook that had a neat graphical version of this. You had the empty jar, and you would pick which item to put in, and you’d graphically see it go into the jar. Then you could pick another item. So then you could play with it and learn the lesson yourself, and then the program would sum up the message for you. It sounds corny but was surprisingly effective and eye-opening. (Someone should make a version of it for the web.)

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  39. You only just figured this out??!! It’s kind of obvious isn’t it? Get the big important stuff done first and fill in the gaps with the small minor stuff.

    It’s just logic.

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  40. I can only view the top bit of the page, it won’t scroll down past the rock/pebble/sand/water intro – am I missing something??

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  41. That was very interesting..and very wise. Will follow it from now on.

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  42. You can fill up your day any way you wish, but in the long run, you’ll want to have spent your time on the important things in life (rocks), without ignoring the necessities that keep it ticking (small rocks, sand and water), rather than being caught up with the little things (small rocks, sand and water) and regretting that you didn’t do the things that you really wanted to (rocks).

    Rock ‘n’ Roll.

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  43. Everyone seems full of admiration for this. Can’t see why. Time management is neccesary but there is no simple or one-size-fits-all solution. You have to figure out how you work and what, therefore, works for you when you plan your time. It ain’t that the Pickle jobbie won’t work, it may just not be right for you.

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  44. Jeremy, I don’t break for lunch. Why? Well, I eat lunch each day at work but I do it whilst pounding the sand—maybe even the water—because I get absorbed and obsessed with the stuff early in the day. THANK YOU for the wake up call. I feel balanced in a Zen sort of way knowing Monday is not going to be like last Monday.

    I have honestly gone through much the same experience as you did in your “pre-pickle jar” days, but no more!

    Everyone I care about is going to get a link to this article. I hope they will improve themselves as I plan to improve myself. THANK YOU!

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  45. I stumbled across this great book called Getting Things Done by David Allen some months ago. Being a time management junkie I bought it. To my big surprise this book really contained useful stuff (compared to a lot of other grand theories that sound good but are not very practical)… Check out the website http://www.gettingthingsdone.com for more info.

    A warning though. It takes a little effort to implement this, but the rewards have been great!

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  46. Like I tell my kidz: if you have a frog to eat, eat it fast! If you have 2 frogs to swallow, eat the big one first.


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  47. I am a first year student in college who has to rpoduce a time managent booklet by the 30th of november.
    I have been told to find as many theorists as possible to back up my underpinning knowledge. Does anyone have any ideas?

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  48. I will definitely use this for some of my essay, as factual / opinionated ideas that reflect upon my thesis and essay topic. THANKS FOR THE HELP!


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  49. This theory sounds like just plain common sense to me. Like the “use your brain” theory. I’ve been practicing this for long years now, and I believe most time management techniques go down the same lane. The pickle jar analogy is a tasty one though. Although I would prefer a cookie jar myself. And instead of rocks, pebbles, sand, and water, I would fill it up with doughnuts, MMs, cocoa powder and milk (reminder to self: buy latest celebrity diet book).

    Seriously: why do we need such theorists to tell us what’s obvious?

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  50. Why? Because I talk to people every day who aren’t. If you are doing it then great. Personally I know I’ve tried dozens of systems in the past (as the article said), and finally settled on a few that work for me. I was simply sharing in case others were in the situation I was, and apparently they were.

    Anyways, it’s beena while since this was published, but it was definitely a worthwhile experience and article :)


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  51. This was great! I’m writing a paper on time management and was getting a little bored with the norm. This was well written and displayed. It made me smile.

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  52. I wanted to find some information on time management, but didn’t want the same old stuffy, boring (yawn), dry material. This was perfect! I, too, had heard the lesson of rocks, pebbles, and sand. I like the pickles, though. I’m guilty of it all—trying to cram as much into one day as I can, rarely crossing off everything on the list, and then feeling like I wasn’t productive. I love this perspective and will use it at home and at work. Thanks for such a well-written piece.

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  53. well, when I think of all the rocks in my head, it’s good to know that there’s still some room for pebbles/sand/water.

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  54. What a load of bollocks

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  55. Makes a lot of sense. At this point my jar gets filled with water first, no doubt. (wink)

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  56. Even as a highschool student, this article was extremely helpful for me. Some good ideas were stated, and it sounds like this system actually works. Time for pickles!

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  57. A little caffiene always helps me remember which rocks are mine…

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  58. Like everyone who takes a free breath or air, every second life happens. Sometimes it invades our day and sometimes it just hangs over us. I work in our own company, as well as from my home office most days, but I still have a hard time keeping my office time sacred. People think you work in an at home office so they run all over your day. I am better at knowing the difference between urgent and important, but there are very few emergency times in anyones day unless your are a firefighter or police. So thanks for a reminder to sort out the needs to been seen too, and the they would nice to get to issues. As long as the sun rises I have hope of improving my time management skills, so I shall keep on course and eventually write articles like this (smiley face goes here.)

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  59. I am sorry to say; I ve never tried a time management system in my life before….what I tried most; was not to work(hence had all the time I needed for anything!!)…all my life I ve managed not to but, pickles taste good and I’ll try this… green or not.

    Rock pickles…..hmmmmm!

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  60. I had a jar of pickles in the refrigerator and they accientally froze. It took hot water and a screwdriver to melt the ice and open the jar.
    Well it ruined the pickles but i now have an empty jar.
    Dont freeze pickles, give them to me instead, and i like this time managemant theory.
    Anyone have any chocolate covered strawberies?

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  61. that stuff was gr8. i mean it was put very succintly. i have been using many other things about time management but this one was too good.

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