How to Set Priorities

parentingOne of my friends I can always count on for a good laugh sent me a Top 10 Priorities list the other day. Not unlike David Letterman’s lists, it was funny. But beyond the humor, what struck me was the very real benefit of taking one’s own life, complete with loved ones, work, interests, dreams, goals and aspirations and being able to sum them up, simply stated into ten lines of text. The next real challenge, not for the faint of heart, is to then label them 10 – 1, ascending in rank from lowest to highest priority. And then if you really want to live by these new priorities you have set for yourself, you will share them with someone close to you. We all need reminders every now and again and if we don’t share them, how can we be accountable for them? So once you have your top ten, post them on your magnet board, write them on little pieces of paper and hide them all over the house but definitely be sure to share them with a friend.

The idea of us moms (who could surely all use an extra hour or maybe ten hours in a day) creating a top ten priority list is a good idea any day of the year, but especially now with the new year upon us. To get you started, I’d like to share this inspiring story with you that truly changed my life when I read it over 7 years ago. I hope that it inspires you to make it a priority to make a priority list for yourself. After all, how can we live by our priorities if we do not first set them?

Big Rocks

One day, an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will never forget. As he stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers he said, okay, time for a quiz, and he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouth Mason jar and set it on the table in front of him.

He also produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, is this jar full?

Everyone in the class yelled, Yes.

The time management expert replied, Really!

He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

He then asked the group once more, Is the jar full?

By this time the class was on to him. Probably not, one of them answered.

Good! He replied.

He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in the jar and it went into all of the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel.

Once more he asked the question, is this jar full?

No! The class shouted.

Once again he said, well done.

Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim.

He looked at the class and asked, What is the point of this illustration?

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit some more things in it!

No, the speaker replied, that’s not the point. The truth is, this illustration teaches us that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.

What are the ‘big rocks’ in your life? Time with loved ones? Your faith, education, work, dreams, hobbies, or a worthy cause? Remember to put your ‘big rocks’ in first. Let all the other parts of your life trickle down around the big rocks and fill in the gaps. This, my friend, is the very real benefit of taking the time to set and then live by priorities. With all the big rocks in first and the little ones squeezing their way in beside them, it might even feel like there’s an extra hour in your day…I said might.

Before another year unfolds, ask yourself “What are the ‘big rocks’ in my life?” Jot them down, rank them 10-1 and be sure they go FIRST into your jar of life.


Suzanne, aka Zen Mommy
In addition to mommying to two magical girls born in 2000 and 2003, Suzanne owns a holistic health center in St. Louis, Missouri where she practices as a physical therapist, Certified Infant Massage Instructor and health education teacher. Certified in a number of healing and life education approaches, Suzanne offers life coaching as Zen Mommy Coach.



  1. ZM, I’m definitely doing this! I have a good sense of what would be in my TOP 10 list and yet I think that the act of writing it down does a lot for me it terms of focusing my intentions. Thanks for the reminder. There was a time, not so long ago, when I had a running TOP 10 taped to my bathroom mirror at all times.

    Yesterday, I had set a goal to do some much needed forecasting for 2009 and I ended up spending 2 hours on the phone with a friend! I was starting to feel stressed about this when I realized that what I was doing with/for my friend is my LIFE PURPOSE — helping people reconnect with their Highest Selves! It is the BIGGEST ROCK! Anything that I do in terms of livelihood is what I do to support that (small rocks). So… as it turned out, I prioritized the right things after all.

  2. Ria, Thanks for sharing. This is such an good reminder to us all that setting priorities allows our focus to shape and guide our lives…not to RUN them.

    We can have yearly, daily…even hourly priorities and still be open to the present moment and what our intuition tells us is right in that moment; in the “is-ness’ of life. What you did for your friend by spending our time on the phone with her was indeed respecting one of the biggest rocks any of us could have in our jars…you did it for the rock of “love”.

  3. I’m so glad I waited to do my Top 10… which I will post shortly. ZM, are you posting yours or, is that private? I couldn’t remember if you said we were supposed to share it or not… so as not to influence or make it more challenging for others to do theirs from “their heart.”

    Anyway, just the “flowing” of the last couple of days has made me revise my list a few times, moving away from specific “to do’s” and more “to be’s.” I’ll be eager for input once I get them posted. 🙂

  4. Here’s my Top 10, folks!

    10. Listen
    9. See the best in others
    8. Receive love and beauty
    7. Do things I love
    6. Enjoy the ride
    5. Nurture myself
    4. Live with an open heart
    3. Be present for friends
    2. Be present for my kids
    1. Be me

    What are yours?

  5. Zen Mommy, great post. I think the trick for me is remembering the rocks, the sand, and the gravel are all made of the same stuff.

    PM, that’s a very Zen list you’ve got. The empty vessel receives – don’t forget to breathe. Out.

  6. Hahahahahaha! And that’s a very Zen comment (same-same).

  7. In proper seats, you plant the Seed,
    And wait for Spring to call, and
    (with a little Grace)
    for all things to fall into place.
    – Adam Bilsky

    thank you adam. yes, the rocks, the sand, the gravel…even the vessel are but one. separate-ness is an illusion.

    your mission to help children “live smarter, opener, and tougher…” is an inspired one. i hope my life helps people live with their hearts just a little bit more open…as it appears you are with yours. this to me is the sign of a true hero…living with ones heart open. i will watch for future blueskywriting…a promising blog at that. i will also watch for the clouds as they pass on by for the shapes they make. peace, zm

  8. thanks for the compliment, ZM! i like your “be here now” post, I was searching for a link to one of my favorite willy porter songs (same title) when I saw your youtube link. beautiful song. sadly, i’ll have to dig to find Willy’s version.

  9. let us know when you find it. i am fighting the urge to dig along side you but will wait patiently for a link to manifest itself if you do infact find it. isn’t ria the best? i got to have lunch with her yesterday and she makes my heart sing.


  1. […] How to Set Priorities | – The idea of us moms (who could surely all use an extra hour or maybe ten hours in a day) creating a top ten priority list is a good idea any day of the year, but especially now with the new year upon us. To get you started, … […]