Rocks or Water?

In mid-December, I read a Newsweek article by Oliver Burkeman on why resolutions, particularly at the beginning of a new year, fail. Apparently willpower is a “depletable resource: the more of it you use making one change, the less you’ll have left over to make others. The discipline you exert on building the exercise habit, initially at least, leaves you more susceptible to burgers rather than less.”

Hm …

I have no idea how true this statement is (and the test results apparently are contested) but there might be something to this. At least, that’s what I choose to believe. Just like I choose to believe that daily dark chocolate and red wine are good for us, and that a healthy rule of life is “Everything in moderation … including moderation.” It’s easy to believe the things we want to believe! But maybe these researchers are on to something. For instance, I’ve long wondered why it often takes life-threatening situations before we humans get serious about making significant changes. My cholesterol is much too high, I’m bordering on diabetes and my knees are killing me … I guess it’s time to lose some weight. You’ve got lung cancer … you think it might be time to stop smoking? Yet another mass murder of innocent school children … maybe it’s time to talk about adjusting our understanding of the 2nd amendment.

Granted, I don’t consider myself a particularly disciplined person but I do think I’ve got a good head on my shoulders and a healthy dose of common sense. Why can’t we humans use our intellect to realize that bad eating habits, poor exercise practices and excess weight lead to serious health issues (or that smoking wreaks havoc on lungs or that automatic assault weapons easily obtained by mentally unbalanced individuals threaten society) and thus nip these potential problems in the bud before they develop into actual problems? Why does it always seem to require the crisis before we’re willing to resolve to make changes? Why can’t we just go straight to the resolve?

Maybe because our resolve is already being exerted (and, thus, “used up”) on other issues.

We live in an ever-increasingly complicated world. According to Phyllis Tickle, who was the keynote speaker this past summer at the annual Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers, if you read the entire NY Times Sunday edition you would be exposed to more information than an 18th-century privileged gentleman would have been in an entire lifetime. What’s more, freshman entering technical college this past fall will have everything they learn the first two years rendered useless by the time they’re juniors. No wonder we’re stressed out and doped up, fragmented and adrift, forever searching and yet unfulfilled! OK, maybe that’s not everyone’s experience, and I can’t even say it’s mine all the time, but I do find myself craving more calm these days. And if you read my last post, you have an idea why! I’ve actually been craving this for some time now but it came to a head recently.

And that’s when I remembered an email that had been forwarded to me years ago about a teacher who set a glass jar on a table at the front of the classroom and next to it set a container with rocks. She asked for a volunteer to come forward and see how many rocks he/she could fit into the glass jar. The student filled the jar with rocks, after which the teacher asked, “Can you fit any more rocks in there?” When the student reassured her that no more rocks could be fit into the jar, the professor then pulled out another container, this one filled with much smaller rocks. “Are you sure no more rocks can fit into the jar?” Well, obviously rocks of this size could fit so the volunteer proceeded to dump a fair amount of the pebbles into the jar, all the way up to the top. “Is the jar now full?” The student replied, “Yes.” The professor then pulled out a container of sand. “Are you sure the container is full?” Naturally, a good bit of sand found its way into the cracks and crevices around the rocks and pebbles. Once the sand reached the brim the student stopped pouring. “Are we done?” the teacher asked. The student was a little leery to say yes but not being able to think of another substance that would fit into this very full jar finally, although hesitantly, acquiesced. “Yeeees …” The teacher then pulled out a pitcher of water and the student was able to pour an amazing amount of water into the jar. But the kicker is that this little exercise doesn’t work in reverse. Start by filling the jar with water and that’s all that’s going to fit (without forcing water to spill over the top).

I’ve actually seen this exercise used to demonstrate various lessons but the one that always resonates with me is time management. Our daily to-do lists usually have a variety of priorities, represented by the elements added to the jar. If you start your day doing the “water” activities, you’re not going to be able to fit anything else in. Leave the “water” to the end, and it’ll always find a way to slip in “between the cracks.”

So, I’ve started a little routine. Each morning I begin my day with meditation (focusing on the dancing wisp of incense smoke is amazingly calming and Zen-like!), prayer, and quiet calm (where maybe all I do is sit—what a concept!). During this time, among other things, I plan my day. First and foremost is deciding which items are the rocks, which are the pebbles, which the sand, and which the water. Then I repeat, like a mantra, the order in which I plan to address these items throughout the day. Another important component to this is making sure that things like mental health, exercise, and social interaction are included in the prioritizing, along with things like daily chores, vocational obligations and email (which I almost always classify as water!).

One key to this process, I think, is a shift in my thinking as to how much needs to be accomplished in any given day. Here’s the thing: I’m always going to have 50x more things that “should” be done than can be done in a 24-hour period. Years of trying to accomplish way more than was humanly possible has led to deep frustration, burn out, and a sense of perpetual water treading, at best, and at worst, drowning (fits nicely with the water metaphor, doesn’t it??). Not what I would call a healthy, balanced, calm, stress-free existence! So (in addition to some others shifts, which I’ll talk about in my next post) I’ve redefined “should” and cut my daily to-do list W-A-Y back. I ask myself if my list is realistic. Often this results in my making a list consisting of “rocks/pebbles” and then a secondary “sand/water” list that I’ll contemplate only if there’s time … and not beat myself up if there isn’t. It’s icing on the cake if I’m able to fit it in the “jar” of my day but it’s not at all mandatory and I don’t put forth any effort to even try to get to it.

If the Newsweek article is even only partially accurate, then it should come as no surprise that this shift in very entrenched thinking and practices has required an enormous effort and more discipline than I normally exhibit.  Which is why I’m happy to report that I’ve actually been fairly successful. Woohoo! But before I allow myself to get too puffed up, I need to remember that it’s only been a couple of weeks. I’m reminded of the prayer:

Dear God, so far today I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or indulgent. I’m really glad about that. But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed, and from then on, I’m going to need a lot more help.

Well, God, so far this year I’ve done pretty well with this new endeavor. I’ve drastically readjusted my daily expectations, I’ve prioritized attention to holistic health and I’ve not allowed “water” activities to push out “rock” activities. But I’m getting ready to start another week, still in the first month of the year, and from then on, I’m really going to need a lot more help!

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