By Luke Murray

This post is part of a series called “Med School Done Right,” which will look at not just succeeding in medical school in the narrow terms of “getting good grades,” but at shaping the kind of experiences you want to have during these (usually) four very important years of your life.

In my last post, we talked about the importance of answering the question:  “What do you want?” and “Why do you want it?”

We discussed the difficulty and importance of answering the “Why?” question, and I said that it’s important to do this in every area of your life.  What I didn’t clarify was to what extent this was healthy and effective.  For an answer to that, I want to turn to a story you’ve probably heard before, about a professor giving a brand new class of students a lecture about goal setting and time management. I then will proceed to tell you how the advice implied by this well-worn story doesn’t work.  Here’s the story, adapted from this version.

“Okay, time for a quiz.” said the professor.  Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. He 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 the jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he asked, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he smiled and 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.

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

Then he looked up 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 into it!”   “No!” the speaker replied.

“That is not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

Now, the explicit advice in this story is great.  Do the most important things first.  However, the implicit advice is not.  After you’ve set your top two or three goals, you apparently then have room to set your next five or so mid-level “gravel sized” goals and then your next ten or so third priority goals, etc.  It would be tempting to make a chart that has significant goals in all the areas of our lives and to try to tackle them all at once, with the understanding that since we put the big ones in first, we’ll be able to eventually get to each one in time (financial, relational, school, physical, etc).

According to this story, we have much more room in our jar than we realize.  We just have to fill it in the proper order, according to the professor.

This certainly makes logical sense.

The only problem is, I’ve never met anybody that made it work.

Nobody.

I’ll explain why this is the case, as well as what DOES work in part 2…