Pickle Jar Theory explained

Pickle Jar Theory - toolshero

Pickle Jar Theory: this article describes the Pickle Jar Theory in a practical way. The article contains the definition of the Pickle Jar Theory, its elements and practical tips. Enjoy reading!

What is the Pickle Jar Theory?

Every day, we fill out time with important, less important, and unimportant things. The Pickle Jar Theory serves as a visual metaphor to determine what is useful and what is not useful. It helps you to set your priorities for daily life and plan tasks in such a way, that you have time to spare instead of too few hours in the day.

The Pickle Jar Theory is popular for time management. Among others, Stephen Covey writes about this in his book 7 habits of highly effective people. The principle is about a big glass pickle jar that’s filled with a large number of fist-sized rocks, pebbles and a lot of sand.

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Pickle Jar Theory: Rocks, pebbles and sand

Everything in the Pickle Jar Theory has a purpose. The pickle jar itself represents our daily life, what keeps us busy and how we divide our time and tasks during the day.

Pickle Jar Theory model - toolshero

Figure 1 – the pickle jar theory consists of three layers, namely Sand, Pebbles and Rocks

The sand represents all the phone calls, emails, social media notifications and other disrupting elements. The pebbles metaphorically stand for the jobs we’re confronted with every day and that fill our diaries. The rocks represent the important tasks in our daily lives. There’ll be serious consequences if we fail to do the latter tasks.

Time is limited however; after all, there are only 24 hours in a day. That’s why we have to make choices. But people tend to respond immediately to impulses that reach them quickly. You have to read that email right away, you can’t leave your phone ringing and a nice chat with your colleague has a function. That’s all true, but the Pickle Jar Theory shows us in a simple way that it’s unwise to adjust our daily activities to these small things and to plan all other tasks around them.

How does it work?

To get a good visual idea of how we generally complete our tasks, the pickle jar is first filled with sand. These are the (sometimes) meaningless tasks that we let distract us every day. Next, the pebbles are put on top of the sand; tasks that need to be completed, but can also be done on another day or at another time or by someone else. Finally, it’s the rocks’ turn; basically the most important tasks we have to do on a certain day.

These are the tasks for which someone has been hired and that fall under their responsibility. Tasks that cannot be ignored or done by someone else. But it turns out that if the sand, pebbles and rocks are put in the jar in this order, there’s barely any room for the rocks. The same thing happens in our daily lives; we stuff it full of unimportant tasks, but when it really matters, we don’t have any time left for the important stuff.

Better division

In order to better plan the different tasks in our daily lives with their varying urgency and importance, the pickle jar is filled again. We’re using the same size jar, the same amount of sand, pebbles and rocks. Only the order is now crucially different.

First, the rocks are put into the jar; these highly responsible tasks really need to get done and all other tasks will be planned around them. After the rocks, it’s the pebbles’ turn. These represent tasks that can possibly be carried out by others or can simply wait.

Finally, we add the sand; all the emails, chats, phone calls and WhatsApp messages disappear into the jar and find their way between the rocks and pebbles. And as it turns out; thanks to the better division of tasks, all ingredients now easily fit in the pickle jar.

Pickle Jar Theory and a timetable

The Pickle Jar Theory provides insight into our timetable and offers opportunities to make an effort every day to put our most important tasks at the top of the list every day. Only then does it get easier to handle and actually meet deadlines.

By not letting our daily activities be interrupted by the sand that’s slipping by, it becomes easier to focus on the main tasks. The insight becomes even more clear by working with to-do lists. By carefully considering what tasks still need to be done in advance, you’ll be able to treat the most important tasks as ‘rocks’ and put them on your list.

Task lists

The hardest part about task lists is making a concrete and honest estimate of the time it will take. People tend to plan barely an hour for a job that might take two. That’s why it’s a good idea to include an honest time estimate when you’re making a top-down task list / To-Do List.

Next, the tasks have to be ordered according to priority to ensure that you will be able to actually carry out these ‘rocks’. In addition, it’s a good idea not to plan more than 6 hours for an 8-hour working day; after all, you need to have a buffer for the pebbles and sand.

In some professions, the day takes shape in accordance with the tasks and it’s hard to plan in advance. To gain insight into a working day anyway, it’s a good idea to use a so-called bottom-up list. During the day, you write down the tasks that have been completed and include how much time they took.

At the end of the day, you’ll have proper insight into the rocks, pebbles and sand. For jobs that include a lot of ad hoc work, it can seem like you weren’t able to get to important tasks. People feel like they’re being run ragged. By taking stock in a disciplined way at the end of the day, it becomes clear how the day went and what the rocks (most important tasks), pebbles (less important tasks and sand (least important tasks) were.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Is Pickle Jar Theory applicable in your daily work? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for good time management?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Covey, S.R. (2013). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press.
  2. Mathew, M. B. E. (n.d.). The Importance of Time Management to become efficient in the Workplace.
  3. Wright, J. (2002). Time management: The pickle jar theory. A List Apart, 146, 1-5.

How to cite this article:
Mulder, P. (2017). Pickle Jar Theory. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/personal-development/pickle-jar-theory/

Original publication date: 09/15/2017 | Last update: 07/03/2023

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Patty Mulder
Article by:

Patty Mulder

Patty Mulder is an Dutch expert on Management Skills, Personal Effectiveness and Business Communication. She is also a Content writer, Business Coach and Company Trainer and lives in the Netherlands (Europe).
Note: all her articles are written in Dutch and we translated her articles to English!


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