You’re probably familiar with the story of the big rocks, the pebbles and the sand in the vase. A teacher stands up in front of the class and fills a glass vase with big rocks. ‘Is it full?’ he asks. ‘Yes’, the class answers. Then he pours in small pebbles, which fill up the cracks between the big rocks. ‘Is it full now?’. ‘Yes’, they answer. Finally, he pours in a bag of sand, the grains making their way into the tiny gaps that remain.
The principle in the story is that if you start with the sand, it will fill the vase completely, leaving no room for the big rocks. Starting with the big rocks and then moving onto smaller things is the only way to get all the elements in. This, of course, is an analogy for starting with the ‘big rocks’ in the way we plan and live out our lives – the things that really matter to us – and then allowing the smaller things that matter less to fit around them.
It’s a classic story that gets used again and again, because the principle is true. Being deliberate about the most important goals and values in our lives is the only way to ensure we give them the time and energy they deserve.
Ultimately, it’s a story about getting what you want. What you really want.
You have goals to achieve
There are dreams still in front of you. You have goals to accomplish, children to raise, change to effect in the world. And those dreams need you to fight for them.
James Williams, in his excellent book, ‘Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy’, talks about three ‘lights’ of our attention –
- The Spotlight – “Our immediate capacities for navigating awareness and action toward tasks. Enables us to do what we want to do.”
- The Starlight – “Our broader capacities for navigating life ‘by the stars’ of our higher goals and values. Enables us to be who we want to be.”
- The Daylight – “Our fundamental capacities – such as reflection, metacognition, reason, and intelligence – that enable us to define our goals and values to begin with.”
Each of these lights enable us, in different ways, to live the life we want to live. When distractions obscure any of these, it can derail us from that life.
The ‘starlight’ of our higher goals and values is our navigational guide for prioritising the ‘big rocks’ in our lives.
There is a battle for your goals
Yet sometimes, it’s difficult to ensure this happens. Which shouldn’t surprise us, since there are entire global industries whose sole purpose is to distract you with their priorities, rather than your own.
Social media is just one example of this; one player within the much larger marketing landscape. Sean Parker, the first President of Facebook, said in an interview with Axios that:
“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’… And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you …more likes and comments… It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
Jaron Lanier, the founding father of VR technology and a fixture of Silicon Valley since the 80s who helped shape the current digital landscape, talks in his new book ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’, about the scale of the forces trying to break down our defences to shape our own behaviour and choices.
“Something entirely new is happening in the world. Just in the last five or ten years, nearly everyone started to carry a little device called a smartphone on their person all the time that’s suitable for algorithmic behavior modification.
…The problem occurs when all the phenomena I’ve just described are driven by a business model in which the incentive is to find customers ready to pay to modify someone else’s behavior.”
Your goals need defences
So then, if there is a battle for your priorities and choices, you need to decide how you’re going to defend them.
There are two approaches.
The first approach is constant, relentless hand-to-hand combat for our strategic priorities. If we know our higher goals and values, the ‘starlight’ by which are navigating, we can white-knuckle our way through each day, deciding moment by moment how to maintain the priorities we most desire, over those that the world, social media, or our own weariness wants us to choose at any given moment.
That is one way, though an exhausting and not terribly effective one. We all know decision fatigue is a real and powerful phenomenon. John Tierney famously shared in a New York Times article the research from a parole board that found that prisoners appearing before the board in the morning when the board members were fresh were granted parole 70% of the time, while those appearing late in the day, when the board members were weary of decision making, only received parole around 10% of the time. It’s the same reason President Barack Obama and Steve Jobs both severely limited their wardrobe options so as to keep their decision making reserves for things that really mattered.
Clearly, making decisions all day every day is not the most effective way to prioritise our true goals and values.
But there is a better way.
There is a better defense against the onslaught of things that can obscure the guiding starlight of our lives.
We can build ourselves some castle walls. We can put defences in place in advance that give us the best chance of exercising self-discipline in the moment.
The stronghold of systems
A stronghold is “a place that has been fortified so as to protect it against any attack”. We can fortify our ability to prioritise our goals and ideals by putting systems in place. We make decisions in advance, at our best, that act as defences against ourselves at our most vulnerable to distraction or derailment.
That’s why Barefoot Investor is the one of the all-time, best-selling non-fiction books in Australia, with a rough estimate showing around one book sold for every 17 adults in the country. It offers a simple system you set up in advance for achieving progress on your financial goals, rather than making decisions moment by moment about how to get there.
It’s why when the journalist Mason Currey spent several years investigating the habits of famous thinkers and writers, he found that overwhelmingly they employed systems and rituals for developing their ideas and writings, rather than waiting for inspiration.
It’s why the productivity system mapped out in David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ is still one of the best selling management books of all time.
Systems help carry the burden of self-discipline when we are at our most vulnerable. Systems mean the decision about the best way forward can be made once, rather than 10,000 times. Systems scale up our self-discipline – from hand-to-hand combat, to strong castle walls.
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The best way to create a system – just start
There are no perfect systems. A system is good if it works for you, and the only way to find what works for you is to try stuff out.
In what area of your life could a system help you live by your own ‘starlight’, and not the distractions that want to derail you? For any major area of life – finance, goal-setting, productivity, health, relationships – there will already be a wealth of systems out there, and many of them would probably work for you. Do a bit of googling, and then commit to try one for a length of time, learning what works and what doesn’t.
Here are just a few to pick from:
Finance – Barefoot Investor
Finance – Dave Ramsey
Productivity – Getting Things Done
Productivity – Pomodoro
Goal-setting – Michael Hyatt Full Focus Planner
Goal-setting – Jon Acuff Finish Calendar
Health – Whole30
Health – ParkRun
Digital limits – Apple’s Screen Time feature
Digital limits – Freedom app
Is there an area of your life from the list above where you find yourself in ‘hand to hand combat’ each day trying to keep yourself living according to the ‘starlight’ of your truest goals and priorities?
Why not pick one system and try it out for 30 days? It might just help you get what you really want.