Time Management: The Pickle Jar Theory

There’s something about a nice crunchy pickle, isn’t there? I mean the aroma may make some people puke, but for me it’s the taste and the juice forcing itself into your mouth like a divine cascade of flavor. As a wise man once said, “It’s like a taste explosion in your mouth!”

Article Continues Below

Well, this article really has nothing to do with pickles, nor does it have anything to do with eating or wise men at all. In fact this article has nothing to do with anything tangible, unless you choose to follow along. Though you don’t have to, I would strongly suggest it as you could have quite the nifty little craft project by the end of this piece!

The jar#section2

Time Management theories have come and gone. I’ve tried many of these and most have failed because of the sheer amount of time I needed to commit to the theory in order to save some time. The return just never seemed to justify the cost, if you know what I mean.

The latest theory of Time Management I heard has actually caused me to stop and think about how I run my entire life. This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, and no I don’t mean thinking, cheeky readers! The theory that was recently taught in a Leadership course I’m enduring is called the Pickle Jar Theory.

The theory#section3

Imagine if you will an, or for those crafty people among you just go get an, empty pickle jar. Big pickle jar, you could fit at least three of the largest pickles you’ve ever imagined inside of it. For those of you who don’t like pickles, I apologize, feel free to substitute the words “pancake jar” for “pickle jar” as needed.

Okay, so you’ve got yourself a pickle jar. Now, put some large rocks in it. Put in as many as you possibly can. Let me know when it’s full. Now, I know you think it’s full, but put a couple more in anyway.

Okay, you’ve got a full pickle jar that you can’t fit anything else into, right? Now, put some pebbles in. Put as many in as you can possibly fit, and raise your hand and bark like a pig when you feel your jar is full.

Now, take your full jar and take sand and, you guessed it, fill that jar until you can’t possibly fit anymore in, and then add some water.

I am sure the significance of this little exercise hasn’t escaped any of you. Each of us has many large priorities in our life, represented by the large rocks. We also have things which we enjoy doing, such as the pebbles. We have other things we have to do, like the sand. And finally, we have things that simply clutter up our lives and get in everywhere: water.

None of these are bad things. After all, we need the gamut of these objects—from large priorities to times of rest—in order to feel truly fulfilled. No Time Management theory should be without balance, and the Pickle Jar theory is all about balance. You make time for everything, and everything simply fits well where it is supposed to fit.

Me and my day#section4

As an example of my pre-pickle day, my little to-do list looked a lot like this:

8:00: check and respond to email
8:30: check various community sites and respond where required
9:00: ensure all web properties are running properly
9:15: set priorities for the day
9:30: go for a walk, grab some water
10:00: do website maintenance, remove outdated content
11:00: draft an article
11:30: polish next article to go out
12:00: ensure all things web-related are handled, running well and all questions are answered
12:30: lunch
1:30: do programming on latest large project
2:30: write letters to clients to keep them abreast of changes in the last three days to their projects
3:30: check with team on progress, deal with issues
4:30: … etc., etc., etc.

Now, I may have actually accomplished a lot in this type of day; in fact, I typically did. All my websites were running properly, I’d written an article or two, I’d done actual work, I’d built client relationships, I’d ensured my team was working properly, so what could be wrong?

Well, take a look at the first five hours of my day. Between 8am and 1pm, all I manage to actually get done that couldn’t fit into other times when my mind tends to wander (and I tend to do these things anyway) was a little bit of article writing.

This part of the day was really a supreme waste of time. I often went to lunch feeling like I was convincing myself that I had been productive. At the end of the day I always believed that a lot got done, but my lunch times always felt slightly depressing.

Beyond that, this schedule did not work if a client walked in and needed an exceptional amount of work done, if a site had crashed overnight, or if I had an email that required more than five minutes of attention. If anything unexpected happened, which we all know should actually be expected, my whole morning and often my entire day fell apart.

My new, improved day#section5

In these post-pickle days, my schedule looks rather different. I now schedule in times when my rocks should get done and let my other priorities, the unexpected and little things I do all day, like surf the web, fill in the gaps. New schedule:

800: figure out rocks for the day (literally, this is what it says!) and deal with emergencies
830: article writing as appropriate
1000: programming
1300: client correspondence

Suddenly I have what feels like a more open day. I have more time for programming, I get things done earlier, I am more relaxed, my schedule is more fluid. It all works incredibly well.

In the post-pickle days I realized that I needed to really figure out what my big rocks were during the day and not schedule time for anything else in my daily routine. Email is not a rock: I can go a few minutes and, wonder of wonders, even a day or two without touching it.

Email is a lot like the phone in that even though we all have our phones on just in case an important call happens, when we look back on our year it is rare that we can remember more than one or two occasions where we absolutely needed to answer our phone or email at that precise instant.

The detractors#section6

There are of course those in the audience who will never have practiced Time Management techniques in the past. They feel they are productive enough and get “enough” done. I’m glad, way to go, give yourselves a hand. Now, grab your jar again. Empty it.

Fill your jar with water until it is completely full. Now, try and add some sand. What do you mean it didn’t work?

This is the essence of the Pickle (or Pancake) Jar Theory. By first ensuring that your large priorities are tackled, scheduled, and done for the day, you can then let the smaller but less important things in until you have somehow allowed time in your day for everything you needed to do, while still relaxing and having fun.

The value of water#section7

I strongly encourage everyone to use at least one Time Management System. It empowers you to actually do instead of scurrying about without any goals in sight. Whether you choose this particular system or not, remember: eat the pickles before you empty the jar, they are so good!

About the Author

Jeremy Wright

Jeremy is a designer, developer, etc. Not big on titles, he loves doing anything that will help folk out, and has been doing so through articles and tutorials for nearly a decade.

111 Reader Comments

  1. Finally, a time management system that is realistic. Thank you. I’m eating my pickles now and preparing my pickle jar.

  2. of course time management is good if you have three or four projects running at the same time, but let’s say you’re a programmer that’s assigned to a program per week (or something like that), then your day would be filled with only one project…
    that’s why ala readers have to ask themselves if they really need a time management system.
    not that pickle jar isn’t good.

  3. Ohhhhhhhhhh…a figurative pickle jar. *chomps on pickle*

    Very good theory. It is easy to do things like check e-mail, surf the web, and write. These are things that I do as a break from work rather than scheduled tasks. I guess I have always been practicing the pickle jar theory. Thanks for telling me!

  4. basta, actually I work in that exact environment. I’ve got 5-year projects, 5 day projects and 5 hour projects. I have dozens of meetings, hundreds of commitments and I’ve tried just about every theory out there. This one simply worked for me in the midst of everything, which is why I chose to write it 😉

  5. time managment theorys always seem nice, but ive never figured out how to get them to work; guess im to much of a procrastinator 🙂 Pickles are tasty though!

  6. Great theory. I’ll try it sometime.

    Seriously though, it’s simple and requires minimal thinking and no logging of time. This might work.

  7. I’m curious to know who runs the time management course that is being referred to here. The theory sounds like it’s from time management guru Stephen Covey’s book, “First Things First”, which I read for the first time in the early 1990’s. It’s still a great theory.

  8. I read about this a while ago and thought it was simple and perfect. It’s nice to see that it’s worked its way through the minds of so many people (although when I heard about it there was no mention of pickles or water or sand; just rocks and pebbles). Now I crave pickles, so goodbye, and great job on the article!

  9. It was a long time ago I heard this one… well they say that you learn by repeating, maybe one day I will remeber this one. Let see which are my rocks in my life nowdays?

  10. Wow, I can already feel this system revoloutionising the way I sue my time. It has the one ingredient that all truly great systems have – simplicity!

  11. Just so everyone knows, the true origin of this is Aesop’s Fables (or Tales, depending on your country of origin). The story is of a raven and a jar or something. Anyways, the course is taught by Steve Long. A nobody really, but very good at practical applications which really hit home. Most of it is simply common sense after all.

  12. Wonderful theory, great explanation, better implementation. But pickles just don’t do it for me: green, warty, and smelly. Now pancakes I can handle. Thanks for the article, very well written. 🙂

  13. Yes, but where are our PHP CMS?! All this talk of TMS and little of CMS is starting to make me PMS…

  14. I heard this years ago, posed as a story about 1st year university students sitting in a lecture hall. The Prof. brings in the jar, does as we all read with rocks, pebbles, sand, water. Each step of the way he asks the students if the jar is full, to which at least a few respond “yes”.

    In the end, he asks what the message is. One student takes a stab and says “You can always fit a little more in” – the prof responds “No… if you don’t put the big rocks first, you can’t fit them in at all. What are your big rocks?”

    It was supposed to be a lesson not only about planning your day, but your life.

    … Just the way I heard it.

  15. this is the same concept I saw illustrated during a “work required” seminar of the 7 habits program by Steven Covey… although it was just large rocks and small pebbles… no pickles

  16. I am so glad to see something so *classic* being embraced again. In 1998-99 when I was travelling around the country and speaking I brought out this theory (which I actually heard from a minister on Sunday morning) and started introducing this concept, to albeit, a smaller audience.

    It works! And I encourage everyone to give it a try.

  17. Like the anonymous post above, I heard a similar version of this concept a while ago.

    The prof. brings in a jar of big rocks. He asks whether it’s full. Students say yes.

    Then he adds smaller rocks. He asks whether it’s full.

    Then he adds pebbles. He asks whether it’s full.

    Then he fills the rest of it with sand. Finally, he says, it’s full. So he goes into his spiel about life’s priorities and all that.

    But then a student runs up to the front of the class and pours a can of beer into the jar, proving “there’s always room for beer.”

  18. I’ve also heard this theory before. But I have one slight problem (even though I KNOW this way of working/living would be a good one): I’ve received this theory so maaaaaaany times in spam mail, you know, the ones that try to teach you how to live a better life, “visit your grandmother at least once a month – Eat right and exercise – etc.”
    Reads a bit like this one : http://www.ics.uci.edu/~klefstad/priorities.html

    So, sure, it’s a great way of handling life. But as I read the article, I couldn’t help my brain from screaming : “SPAM ! SPAM !”. My bad. I’ll try anyway, ‘cos, once again, it feels like I’d need it these days…

    (and, nice one with the beer =) )

  19. Nice stuff, Jeremy. Nice change of pace at ALA…keeps different topics in the mix. Irrelevant for some – maybe. Relevant for others – definitely! Thanks for publishing this, Zeld!


  20. I have a similar situation as you (Basta) describe – days filled with a single project/task, but I can see benefits in using this “Jar Theory”. The strength is of course the metaphor (or is it an allegory? Forgive my linguistic shortcomings.).

    In my experience there is seldom a task that large (lasting 1 day or more), that cannot be broken down into smaller /sub/tasks. This excercise can seem futile (the one task’ll get done without it), but my point is that within such a large task I can often identify more important subtasks (critical to the completion of the overall task) and not-so-important ones. In this Jar Theory the former subtasks would be ‘rocks’, the latter ones ‘pebbles’.

    By concentrating on the critical subtasks – the rocks – I will sometimes improve my productivity, sometimes not. The greatest benefit though, will be that I definitely minimize the chances of my spending time picking pebbles while there are rocks unturned.

    Also, in a scenario with one project lasting several days, a change of scope could enable this theory to work under various conditions:

    Make the project scope the jar. Now it’s easy to identify rocks/pebbles/&c. to structure and prioritize your day(s). When the time comes when there are more diverse assignments, simply resize the jar to fit your new needs.

    The benefit here would be using one (1) system, the mental image of the jar and what-not seem to be scalable without loosing relevance (BIG plus) – I thought it over and can’t find any major pitfalls (anyone?).

    (Q to Jeremy Wright: The theory doesn’t require you to have a one-size jar does it? If I’m missing important reasons for not using a resizable jar I better scrap these dynamic materials [patent pending] :).)

  21. I prefer pancakes, but I would never pour water on top of pancakes!

    I’ll give it a try with liquid honey. Mmmmh :))

  22. So, I have heard about this theory before.. and it’s a good one.. the problem I have, and I think most anyone who works on projects simular to my projects is that, well, there are just too many rocks to fit into the pickle jar… it’s amost as if I need a second pickle jar to take care of the other rocks, but that will never happen because they rocks can only be handled by myself… there is a long story there but I will spare you of that. So my question is, what if you have too many large rocks? The rocks alone can not fit into the confines of a pickle jar… what do you do? prioritize? put some of the rocks on the back burner? I am currently doing this, the problem is, more rocks keep appearing… the burner is now overcrowded.

  23. It is a metaphor. An allegory is in more of a story form and a bit longer. Like Animal Farm is an allegory of Russian history and Stalin etc.

  24. Hey mate… Resizable jar? I’m not entirely sure the specific size of the jar (scope of the project/day) matters that much. In fact I would say in the metaphor/allegory (I’m equally linguistically challenged) that it doesn’t matter at all.

    Get your rocks done, and the rest of the jar generally falls together really nicely. Even today I rescheduled one of my large rocks because I knew I couldnt’ give it the “shining” and attention it deserved.

    It really is a simple concept: prioritise. But it’s more than that. Prioritising does no good if you don’t take action, as I’m sure we all know 😉

  25. Hey mate, your question is a good one. Since I’m now involved in the following things:

    – writing for sitepoint
    – starting a webhosting company
    – full time lead developer
    – marketing/pr lead for a .NET forum
    – domain registrar helpdesk
    – 3 large client sites

    etc, I can totally relate. There is always more of a stress than I can handle. My solution is twofold. First, at the beginning of every day, write down what NEEDS done that day. This ensures that you never miss anything. Next, on a week-to-week basis, ensure that each area you are working on always gets attention.

    I find that my biggest problem isnt’ starting things, but maintaining momentum. By holding weekly “evaluations” with myself, I ensure that momentum is always maintained, and by evaluating my daily rocks I ensure that I am keeping my word and nobody is ticked off.

    I hope this helps, and if not, truly sorry, I’ll see if I can dig up another Aesop’s Fable for you 😉

  26. Codeman: Thanks. I hadda lookitup post-posting (and Orwell’s book actually figured as case in point), also found “parable” and “fable” to mix-it-up further. I remember reading about all these words&meanings – obviously without understanding – in the brilliant novel The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, highly recommended everyone.

    Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely see your point (prioritize, act & keep momentum), and I fouled up my argument. I was after the use of the entire metaphor (not just the jar) at different scales – much like your twofold solution (in post “Nick :)”). Logically, this can be seen as the use of the same metaphor (jar, rocks and all) with two different scopes (day and week [overall project would be a third and so on]).

    Now I can dig, it might seem futile/unnecessary to disassemble something perfectly straightforward as this Jar Theory (identify the rocks, take care of ’em, have Pop-Tart).

    But I have similar difficulties as you with my ‘rocks’ (although not that acute, man you really have some WORK cut out!), and I’ve been involved for some time now in creating a new company-wide Project Model. Finding agreeable, robust and _versatile_ metaphors and mnemonics have been a source of ..well, frustration is one word, semantic warfare two.

    As any Project Model will consist of a number of tools and abstraction layers – WBS, Leaning Wave, CPM, Concurrent Engineering, &on&on – having simple (as people here seem to agree it is) metaphors that work and have multiple uses (want # of metaphors < real scenarios) is kinda the bee's knees, 'cause they'll be used _and_ empower users. Without having stress-tested the hell out of this theory/metaphor it does have scalability going for it, and eventhough it pro'ly won't make everything crystal, it could possibly be useful in several add. areas (e.g. Work Breakdown Structure, Critical-Path, &c.). Well, time, research and testing will tell :).

  27. … for having a head which is used for more than eating 🙂

    I love to teach (college level mainly) and I always find that metaphors are the easiest way to go about teaching. The students will often remember the metaphors for years (okay, minute at least) whereas my lectures often go unnoticed *L* 🙂

  28. As princess of procrastination, time management has never been a strength of mine. Time management systems to me are a waste of time – but then again I never get around to actually enforcing one. This is one I can do. This one’s simple – and since I can’t stand quibbling with each minute detail, the big picture er… big rock… um… big pickle is something I can fit into my life without feeling like time management is another huge unweildy task.

  29. If you work on one project or program all day then that becomes your jar. What tasks does it take to complete the project. These become your rocks etc.

  30. Taught us you have. Remember it I will. 🙂

    Dropping my terrible Yoda-imitation (I kill my vocal cords doing that stuff, not to mention the awkward grammar *l*), I noticed I never thanked you for a rewarding read – the manners!

    Thanks Jeremy, it was a very enlightening article.

  31. To be perfectly honest I need to thank Jeffrey. Writing for ALA is literally a dream come true. Less than a year ago I couldnt’ write for beans (ask my friends) and one day it just clicked (long story).

    About a month ago, I interviewed Jeffrey for another site, and he invited me to write an article for ALA so I did. I’m glad I did, y’all are a very merciful audience! Maybe I’ll be back if Jeffrey likes this one, I’m not sure. I really need to PRIORITISE my writing, as I’m now getting too many invitations, thanks in large degree to the ALA crew and you guys.

    So, don’t thank me (not my idea), I should be thanking you. So, thank you 🙂

  32. anyone who is truely lost and looking for a long-term and short-term Time Management system should checkout Stevn Covey’s “First Things First.” excellent starting point

  33. what you say is true, but imho when working on a project it is better to start off with the big things (rocks) and then work your way down until you have to polish the whole thing up…

    for example, if I’m designing a web page I’ll start out with layout/scripting and then put in the content and add fun stuff…

  34. This is a really basic, common sense system to the point where it might not really need to be a “system”… but the fun of saying Pickle Jar over and over makes up for it. And actually… there was a time when my to-do list items didn’t automatically get sorted by importance, so I’m sure this article will turn a light on for somebody. Way to go, Jeremy! Double points for the Pancake Jar option.

  35. If the jar is my day/project/life, then surely I can fill it up starting at the bottom, a bit at a time using different sizes of fill. Eg. A large rock goes in… then a few pebbles… then a bit of sand and water (then I have a coffee break *grin*). Then I put in two more large rocks and a lot of sand… then some larger pebbles… etc … until my jar is full!!
    So Taking my day as an example, I do a large ominous task then a few easier quicker ones then check my email and stuff. Then I’m off on the next big project (all planned ahead at the start of the day).
    I guess what I’m saying is that there is a layer of management that means that you have to keep a watch on the way the jar is filling up…Not too many large rocks or too much sand.

  36. the theory itself is nothing new, but the use is a new twist, and a good one i might add. especially the pickle eating part. yum.

  37. Using the pickle metaphor and asking the question “Was it good for you?” in the same article. Goodness.

  38. I don’t quite see the direct connection between this article and ‘The Web’, but nonetheless it’s a nice article.

    As far as I can see, the point is to not ‘play before work’, and to not over-schedule a day, but generalise your tasks. In the most extreme form, the schedule might be like this:

    8:00 – Work
    12:00 – Rest
    12:30 – Work
    17:00 – Rest
    18:00 – Play

    Work, Rest and Play! Such ancient wisdom combined with such a modern technology! I do that sort of thing with my 2do-lists. Most items on the list don’t have a specific deadline, and they’re jotted down in such a general way that only I can understand them: ‘Do building,’ ‘Edit Keypc’.

    I know what I am to do; I don’t have to over-define my activities from minute to minute.

  39. Hurrah! Now i have proof when confronted by my parents with the argument “why don’t you have a schedule for your day’s work” that this method of working really does work! 🙂

    My Mum’d just call it Procrastination though, thwack me round the side of the head with her pen, command me to “plan my day tomorrow” then continue to work. Gotta love parents 🙂

    Nice article. Damn I gotta nick that font-style-changing-button script 😛

  40. Thanks Jan. Your additional thoughts extending the ‘Jar of rocks’ illustration is personally helpful. I’ve always wondered how to schedule my time when it seems all I have to do is this one big project. I used to just tackle the next thing I do, and being an easily distracted person, will try to do many different things at different times with no plan or purpose.

    Jeremy, I too had heard this theory years before, but never really saw its significance until I chanced upon that quirky title. Thanks for repackaging a classic idea so that someone like me would bite the hook and benefit from it when i wouldn’t have otherwise. Makes me think about how somethings we hear at seminars, workshops and sermons which we feel don’t help us, may actually be very worthwhile revisiting.

    Time-management is really crucial, because we all want to live purposeful, significant lives. If that were not the case, then we could well just live doing whatever we want, whenever and however. Will try to put all the thoughts from the discussion so far into practice.

  41. I’ve read this theory before in a book called “First thing first”. The key point is, the time management system should based on your priority in life. The great rocks in life is planning, improving yourself, improving relationship with family and friends, and all these kinds of important stuffs in life(but not so urgent ones as it looks) should be put in first. And when there are empty spaces, you fit in your pickles.

    What is important is, you should view this pickle jar theory using a life time frame, but just a day time frame.

  42. the theory is nice and reassuring common sense (and yes, i received lots of spam mail about it)

    the real big deal is how to find out what the real important things are. sure, this is up to you, up to anyone like deciding how to organize your time. i think this theory is incomplete

  43. 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.

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

  45. …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

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

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

  47. 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

  48. 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,

  49. 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.

  50. 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!

  51. 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, http://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…”, http://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!

  52. 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*

  53. 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!

  54. 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.

  55. 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.

  56. 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…

  57. 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.

  58. 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.

  59. 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.

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

  61. 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.

  62. 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

  63. 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)

  64. 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.

  65. 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….

  66. 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!

  67. “800: figure out rocks for the day (literally, this is what it says!) and deal with emergencies”

    ……the opening is fluid …..

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

  69. 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…

  70. 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?

  71. 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

  72. 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

  73. 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!!!!

  74. 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

  75. 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.

  76. 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.)

  77. 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.

  78. 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??

  79. 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.

  80. 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.

  81. 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!

  82. 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!

  83. 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?

  84. 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!


  85. 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?

  86. 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 🙂


  87. 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.

  88. 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.

  89. 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.

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

  91. 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!

  92. 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.)

  93. 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!

  94. 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?

  95. 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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