A Lesson from the Beach

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When I’m in San Diego I enjoy walking around either Harbor Island or Shelter Island. Most often, I walk around Harbor Island since that’s where I keep my boat.

The other day, I climbed down the rocks and snapped the photo looking at Tom Ham’s Lighthouse. When you take a closer look, you can see the shoreline is primarily boulders, a few smaller stones or pebbles and a handful of sand. Both islands are man-made, so there is not an abundance of pure sandy beach on either.

As leaders, we want to maximize our productivity and impact. The question becomes – how? We are surrounded by a seemingly endless list of things vying for our time and attention daily.

These three items from the shore actually provide a simple planning framework to help us achieve both objectives. This framework has been around for many years. I’ve seen it illustrated several different ways, but it came to mind as I was walking and it bears repeating.

Think of the boulders as items that are essential for you to complete. These are things that represent your highest and best use as a leader.

The pebbles are items that are important, but not essential.

The sand, then, becomes the rest. The things that scream for your attention. E-mails, text messages, phone calls, reports, meetings and other things that can easily consume your entire day.

Each of us has 168 hours per week. Do the math. We can’t change that by willpower, positive thinking, or any other means.

Now – picture your week as a container with a volume equal to 168 hours. Your job is to fill that with the activities that produce the best results.

If you fill your container with sand, you don’t have room for any boulders or pebbles. Similarly, if you start with pebbles, you still have room for some sand but maybe only a single boulder.

If you plan your week that way, you will most likely end the week exhausted and feeling like you didn’t really accomplish anything of lasting value.

So, the key to planning becomes thinking through your week and scheduling your boulder items first. Then schedule your pebbles. Then fill in the open spaces with the sand.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  1. Remember that what is “urgent” is not always important or essential. Filter accordingly.
  2. Resist the temptation to have too many boulders. Most humans can only focus on 3 or 4 things at a time. Rarely, up to 6. Spreading yourself too thin will frustrate you and undermine your overall effectiveness.
  3. What pebble or sand items can you possibly hand off to one of your subordinates or other team members that would help you stay focused on the essentials?
  4. Rarely does a perfectly planned calendar survive first contact with Monday. Unexpected things just happen. When this occurs, pause and ask yourself – what is the most essential thing for me to complete next? Then update your schedule accordingly.

Over time, using this framework will yield increased and more focused results. Rarely will you end your week without accomplishing something of significance. It may not be everything you’d hoped, but you will have made steady progress.

I guess taking more frequent strolls along the beach is a good thing for all of us.

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