The Pickle Jar Theory in Time Management: The Ultimate Guide

Come again—the pickle jar theory? No, you haven’t gotten lost. This article is relevant to your small business time management approach, we swear.

We’re taking a look at exactly what this theory is, why the pickle jar theory is important for small businesses, and how to apply the pickle jar theory in your time management. (Meet you back here if you need to run to the fridge for a snack first!)

What is the pickle jar theory, and what is it for?

The pickle jar theory is a time management technique to help prioritize your tasks and responsibilities in a repeatable order that increases efficiencies. Created by Jeremy Wright in 2002, the pickle jar theory (also called the “bucket of rocks” theory or the “jar of life” theory) begins with the premise that your time is finite and needs to be used strategically. The theory gives a set order to your tasks that you follow every day, while visualizing the analogy of an empty pickle jar.

Think of an empty jar of pickles as representing a typical day stretching out in front of you. Then picture the following elements, which need to go into your empty jar every day:

  • Sand: phone calls, emails, social media, less necessary meetings
  • Pebbles: somewhat urgent jobs in your calendar that have flexible timing
  • Rocks: your most important tasks with negative consequences if you failed to complete them
  • Water: your rest, or “off” time

The pickle jar theory in practice

Now imagine filling your empty jar with various quantities of rocks, pebbles, sand, and water. The idea is that you should always start with your rocks (high-priority tasks), followed by your pebbles (medium-priority tasks), and then your sand (low-priority tasks). Finish off by filling the jar with water (“off” time). 

If you start with the water or sand, very few of the pebbles or large rocks will fit. And if you try to put in large rocks only, they’ll break the jar. But if you stick to the order of descending priority levels, you’re more likely to reach your highest productivity level and less likely to burn out.

The pickle jar theory can benefit anyone with a busy schedule. However, it’s especially useful to small business owners and managers who need to know the amount and size of tasks that can be realistically done in a day. 

Rules for how to apply the pickle jar theory 

The pickle jar theory is just that—a theory. It only works for you and your small business if you put it into practice consistently and properly. Apply the pickle jar theory effectively by sticking to these guiding rules: 

Accurately define your highest priorities

When designating your high-priority tasks (rocks), make sure you understand which of your tasks contribute to your big-picture goals the most. Ask yourself which ones will have the most significant effect on your business, and be honest. 

Save distractions for the end

Your high-focus hours are precious. It’s essential to start your day without any distractions (pebbles), or you’ll waste your brain power on shallow tasks. Sure, it’s natural to respond to something that instantly grabs your attention like an email coming in or a coworker walking by. But all these little unplanned productivity-killers add up by the end of the day.

Avoid multitasking as much as you can

We know—it’s easier said than done. But multitasking is proven to decrease your productivity. Try your best not to procrastinate and stay focused on one thing at a time.

Don’t forget to delegate

Delegate smaller tasks to your team members rather than taking on everything yourself. It might take a bit of extra training at the start. But in the long run? It gives you more focus for your more mentally consuming tasks.

Keep an eye on quality, not just quantity

Highly productive people don’t fixate on the quantity of tasks accomplished, but on the quality of their work. If you find you’re accomplishing fewer tasks in a day, recognize that they’re more important ones.

Give yourself time to recharge

A healthy work-life balance isn’t just “nice” to have. Respecting personal time and pursuing other interests helps you feel recharged and eager to get back to work, boosting your overall productivity. 

Advantages of the pickle jar theory for small businesses 

Using the pickle jar theory in your time management approach has real benefits for your small business. By using the pickle jar theory over time, you can:

Make prioritizing easier

The pickle jar theory helps you see the urgency of your tasks more clearly. By keeping the bigger picture top of mind when planning your day, it’s easier to filter out what’s important and what’s not.

Organize your days more effectively

With better insight into how much time you’re spending on different kinds of activities, you can make more accurate work-time estimates. With a well-designed, organized workday, you’ll know with more confidence when you should switch from one thing to the next.

Prevent multitasking

Doing several things simultaneously, rather than giving a single task your undivided attention, can reduce productivity by up to 40%. You’ll not only sharpen your focus if you avoid multitasking, you’ll also feel less overwhelmed and make less mistakes.

Overcome procrastination

When you set a goal for yourself to dedicate a set amount of time (sometimes called a “power hour”) to a high-focus task, followed by a break or a low-focus task, you’re much more likely to stay alert and follow through on your intention.

How to apply the pickle jar theory 

For your small business, there are further ways this concept can help you look at your team’s time management a bit differently. As you go about implementing the pickle jar theory for the first time, consider these related concepts:

Time blocking

Time blocking—a great way to apply the pickle jar theory—is a useful time management method where you divide your day into blocks of time. Each block is dedicated to a specific task or group of tasks, and only those specific tasks. At the end of a workday, review any tasks you didn’t finish, plus any new ones that have come in, and adjust your upcoming time blocks accordingly.

Time tracking

Going hand-in-hand with time blocking is time tracking. If you’ve never tracked work hours before, you might not even be aware of just how much time is actually being wasted. One study found that over 50 million hours of productivity are lost in the US every day because of unrecorded work activities.

There’s a reason successful companies with hourly workers use employee time tracking—keeping track of the time spent on individual projects or tasks. Being informed about where your minutes and hours go is crucial in making any kind of work plan. With a better understanding of how time is being used, the scheduling improvements you need to make become much more apparent.

Manage your team’s pickle jar with Homebase 

This is where time tracking apps like Homebase can make all the difference.

Homebase’s time clock app is the number one solution for small business time tracking.

From tracking employee work hours to optimizing your labor costs, Homebase’s all-in-one employee management solution makes managing your employees’ time a breeze.

The best parts?

  • Time track accurately with a small business time clock that can be used on most iOS, Android, and POS devices.
  • Compare your time tracking with your employee schedules and labor forecasts in just a few clicks, so you know your labor costs are on track.
  • We’ll automate your payroll processes. Now that time you’ve tracked can easily turn into money in your employees’ pockets.
  • Share the latest time-tracking updates with your team using our in-app team communication features.
  • Compliance has never been easier with features that help you stay compliant with state and federal labor laws. And don’t worry, our pros are here to guide you along the way.

Need help with time management?

Get Homebase, and start optimizing your time with top-rated scheduling, time clocks, messaging, payroll, HR, and more. Get started for free

Pickle jar theory FAQs

What is pickle jar theory?

The pickle jar theory is a time management technique to help prioritize your tasks and responsibilities in a repeatable order that helps you stay efficient. Beginning with the premise that your time is finite and needs to be used strategically, the theory has you visualize the analogy of an empty pickle jar representing your waking hours. The elements of rocks, pebbles, sand—representing tasks of descending importance—are placed into the jar in that order as they’re completed. Water is poured in last, representing your personal time or rest.

Who invented the pickle jar theory?

The pickle jar theory was invented by author and business consultant Jeremy Wright in 2002.

What are the benefits of pickle jar theory?

The benefits of the pickle jar theory include easier prioritizing, more accurate work-time estimates, more organized workdays, less multitasking, and lowered procrastination.

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