The Water is Life
Challenging some conventional productivity advice
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This article originally appeared on my personal blog, Clinsights, here.
Editor’s Note: In two days, this post will be locked and is available only to paid members because we don’t want this duplicate content on the open web in a way that might draw traffic away from the original post. You can always read the entire post here.
“Put the big rocks in your schedule first first.”
That’s the advice I learned decades ago in a demonstration from Steven Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This demonstration, which I’ll describe in a moment, is intended to illustrate Covey’s well-meaning advice about how to structure your schedule to ensure that you achieve your biggest life goals.
In the demonstration, Steven represents your biggest life goals as “rocks,” and all the urgent activities, smaller tasks and daily fires that you have to deal with are represented by pebbles, sand and water, respectively.
In the first demonstration, he places, into a large jar, the sand, water, and pebbles first. Then he attempts to drop in the big rocks and, of course, the jar overflows. The point being that if you let your life become consumed by the small unimportant but urgent things, there will never be time for the big “important but not urgent” activities, which he calls “rocks.”
His solution is illustrated by the second demonstration: You put the big rocks into the jar of your life first. Then the pebbles, then the sand, and then, finally, the water. And now, everything fits into your jar, nice and neat, and you’ve made progress on all your life’s biggest goals and dreams. In practice this means that you schedule the “rocks” on your calendar first each week and, somehow, everything else will magically flow around your inviolable rock time.
Sounds logical, doesn’t it?
Except…except….recently, something has been nagging my subconscious about this demonstration and, I think, I’ve finally put my finger on it: Covey assumes that the water is unimportant. Over the past year and a half, as I’ve tried to record each day just one good thing that I’m grateful for, I’ve noticed that nearly every “good thing” I write down lives in the water and not the rocks. Life seems to know what I need far better than my ego or my daily planner does.
Of course, from a productivity standpoint, the big rocks are important, and the water is certainly “the least important.” But there’s much more to life than productivity. After all, man does not live on bread alone. When considered from a creative standpoint, or from a spiritual standpoint, the water is not only more important, but one realizes that the water is life.
As I said above, the “big rocks” represent your important goals, ambitions, financial goals, family goals, physical goals, spiritual goals and self-improvement goals. And, conversely, the small things, the water, would be the small unplanned moments that interrupt your day: an old friend happens to call. You take a walk to clear your head and notice the feeling of the breeze. A neighborhood cat stops and asks you to pet him while you are checking your mailbox, you step into your backyard just as the sun is setting and notice the beauty of God's evening plein air painting across the sky.
So, while there's nothing particularly wrong with Covey's rational, left-brained approach…especially if your goal is to be productive in life, to be profitable in your business, and to accomplish “important” things with your allotted time on this earth…I contend that the whole demonstration is masking or ignoring the bigger point that I made briefly above: real life is in the water, not the rocks.
You probably already guessed at my point when you read my examples of “water” events above, and, it's true that I cherry picked good, beautiful moments to represent the water. But, as I think through possible negative events: getting sick, having a difficult conversation with a loved one, arguing with your spouse, comforting someone who is hurting.. Those water moments are real life too.
What about something as mundane and annoying such as being late and trapped in a traffic jam? Surely that’s just “unimportant water” that one can ignore. It depends though, if you are impatient and furious at the delay, what does that say about your real, inner life and development of awareness? What if you are calm and patient and understand that these things happen? Is there a chance for growth in that? Can that time be used to further your inner life and creative ideas vs your outer life and left-brained goals? It makes me wonder, what would a “water first” approach look like?
The “rocks first” approach is an ego driven, logical, and rational approach to one’s schedule. The ego loves to create its systems and rationalizations that let it continue to live inside the illusion of control. And, to be honest, my ego adores the “big rocks first” idea. I’ve prioritized BoldBrush’s business goals utilizing a system based loosely upon the “big rocks” idea for nearly two decades.
But lately I’ve realized that the “water first” approach appeals much more to my mystical, romantic, sacred, creative side. It appeals to my artistic side. So it's certainly no surprise that a man, such as myself, who refers to himself as a writer and a creative soul, would start to see the value of approach that puts the living water of life first, for it is this very water that provides the raw materials necessary to create. It represents the energy of life that bubbles up and serves as fodder for my art…and yours.
The “rocks approach” may serve the busy businessman well, but the weirdos, the artists, the "crazy ones," as the famous Apple ad called them, must learn to swim in the ripples and eddies of the living waters of life. “The crazy ones” are the people who sit around and appear to accomplish nothing for days. Until, finally, the tipping point is reached, and we’ve drunk deeply enough from the water of life that, suddenly, the divine moment we call “inspiration” appears, and that same stored water suddenly gushes forth from us birthing a novel, a painting, a short story, a melody, an essay, or even a genius business idea. Suddenly our minds and our hands become fountains of creation that release that stored water back into the universe in a new and sublime form.
One can certainly try the “rocks first” approach in creative endeavors. Don’t let me dissuade you. Go ahead, schedule "creative time" on your calendar each week. I’m not being ironic - it's a good idea to do so, for the Muse often arrives when she is pleased to find us already working.
But don't be surprised when your calendar alert dings to let you know that it is now time to focus on your “creative time rock,” and you finally settle down to do the work, but, suddenly, you feel that there is not a single creative bone in your entire body and you are forced to write something wooden and stale to check off “write” (or “paint”, or “dance”, or whatever your creative outlet happens to be) from your todo list.
And yet, after struggling for an inspired idea during your entire scheduled creativity “rock”, during which the Muse resolutely refused to appear, you are shocked and surprised only a few hours later, that very same day, just as you are sitting down to dinner during your "family time rock”, when the Muse arrives in full force to whisper, "not so fast buster, I've got a doozie of an idea for you right now." Put a hand to your ear. Be quiet. Can you hear the Muses laughing at your “rocks first” attempt to creativity?
Ultimately, that's the “problem” with the "rocks first" approach: activities can be scheduled but inspiration can not. To maximize your chances for inspiration, intuition, and beauty in your life, you have to, as Bruce Lee said, "be like water."
So, I conjecture that we creatives need to remember that success is found not only in the big rocks that we add to our schedules, but perhaps even more importantly, it can be found more organically and intuitively when we admit what we must subtract from our schedules. Maybe we should all take a few rocks out of the metaphorical jar and leave even more room for the living water of life to flow into us.
And, the more we take out, and give up the illusion of control, the clearer this water will become until, finally, we have let go of enough rocks, silt and grit that we swim contentedly and easily through the flowing, crystal clear waters of enlightenment. And surely, while floating through such beautiful crystal clear waters, we certainly don’t want to find ourselves weighed down by too many big rocks.
“Enjoy the little things in life
because one day you`ll look back and realize
they were the big things.”
― Kurt Vonnegut