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First Things First

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 


In response to earlier messages, Professor Kim Needy of the University of Pittsburgh points to the importance of setting aside blocks of time for long-term important things (proposal writing, developing a new course, and writing up your research result s). She, and others, point out our tendency to spend too much time on short-term urgent matters, even important ones, and leave little or no time for reflection and long-term thinking essential to personal and professional success. 

Along a similar line, Harrianne Mills of Stanford University provides the following quote from, First Things First, by Steven R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill, which I think captures the problem pretty well. 


319 words 

"I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, "Okay, it's time for a quiz." He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-si zed rocks on it. "How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?" he asked. 

After we make our guess, he said, "Okay, let's find out." He set one rock in the jar...then another...then another. I don't remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, "Is the jar full?" 

Everybody looked at the rocks and said, "Yes." 

The he said, "Ahh." He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, "Is the jar full?" 

By this time we were on to him. "Probably not," we said. 

"Good!" he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and gravel. Once more he looked at us and said, "Is the jar full?" 

"No!" we all roared. 

He said, "Good!" and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, "Well, what's the point?" 

Somebody said, "Well, there are gaps and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life." 

"No," he said, "that's not the point. The point is this: if you hadn't put these big rocks in first, you would never have gotten any of them in?" 


S.R. Covey, A.R. Merrill, and R.R. Merrill, First Things First. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1994, pp. 88-89. Copyright ? 1994, Simon & Shuster. 


As always, I look forward to your comments, stories, and any other matters you care to share with other science and engineering professors. 

Rick Reis