Pickle Jar Theory

The pickle jar theory is a time management framework that prioritizes responsibilities and tasks in a particular order. The theory was developed in 2002 by author and proactive scheduler Jeremy Wright. Therefore, the pickle jar theory is a visual metaphor that assists in better time management.

Understanding the pickle jar theory

To understand the pickle jar theory, first imagine an empty pickle jar in which a few rocks are placed. Three rocks may be all it takes to fill the jar, but then imagine that you are asked to add pebbles to the jar which occupy the spaces between the rocks.

When you believe the jar is full of rocks and pebbles, consider a scenario where you are then asked to add sand. How much sand could you fit in the spaces between the rocks and pebbles? When the sand has been filled to the brim, fill the pickle jar with water to see how much free space remains.

In the context of time management, the rocks represent priorities and the pebbles represent enjoyable activities. Sand, on the other hand, represents the activities we have to do, while the water represents everything else.

Note that the pickle jar theory does not argue that any of the elements added to the jar are necessarily good or bad. However, it does preach the idea of balance. In other words, we must make time for everything in our lives while also meeting our responsibilities. 

To do this, we can fill the jar with various tasks and activities with special care given to the order in which they are added. 

A closer look at the elements of the pickle jar theory

In this section, let’s take a closer look at each of the four elements:

  1. Rocks – large projects or tasks that may have serious consequences if not completed on time and within budget. These are tasks that, in general, only you can complete.
  2. Pebbles – smaller tasks that must be dealt with daily such as answering phones, responding to emails, or scheduling meetings.
  3. Sand – more trivial activities such as coffee breaks or checking social media.
  4. Water – this constitutes family life, private life, and other activities that may or may not provide an environment conducive to relaxation, meaning, or personal development.

The implications of the pickle jar theory

In the introduction, we touched on the importance of adding elements to the jar in the correct order. Imagine once more that we reverse the order and add the sand and water first. How many pebbles and rocks could then be added? Not very many, if any at all.

In a workplace scenario, sand and water are the tasks that consume our time and prevent more meaningful work from being completed. This causes us to become unproductive.

Therefore, it stands to reason that productivity can be increased by adding the rocks first and tackling the most important tasks as a matter of priority. For most employees, this will be three or four tasks per day. Then (and only then) should less important tasks be tackled.

Key takeaways:

  • The pickle jar theory is a time management framework that prioritizes responsibilities and tasks in a particular order. It was developed in 2002 by author and proactive scheduler Jeremy Wright.
  • The four elements of the pickle jar theory are rocks, pebbles, sand, and water. The theory does not define these elements as either positive or negative, but it does maintain that they be added to the jar in the correct order. 
  • When employees add sand and water to the jar first, they will find that there is less time for more important workplace activities. Productivity then suffers as a result.
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