Time Management Practices and the Parable of the Mayonnaise Jar

by Jeremy R. Geffen, MD, FACP

In today’s busy and complex world, it is more important than ever before to set priorities and manage time well.  This is especially true for health practitioners who face personal as well as professional pressures and responsibilities while serving as guides and mentors for patients and families that are often dealing with serious, or even life-threatening, challenges.  This demanding work must also be performed within the context of an uncertain, highly stressed, and even dysfunctional healthcare system that is undergoing constant change.   In this light, assessing the purpose of your life and your most important goals can be an extremely meaningful and empowering process.

The parable of the mayonnaise jar is a story about goals and priorities that is often told in time management seminars, with many variations. It is a metaphor that can help you remember to set your priorities and create time for what matters to you most.  When life seems too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, remember the mayonnaise jar.

A professor stands before his philosophy class and picks up a large, empty mayonnaise jar.  On the table beside the jar are separate containers of golf balls, pebbles, sand, and water.  The professor fills the jar with golf balls, and asks the students, "is the jar full?”  Half the class says, “yes.”  But half say, “no, there is still space between the golf balls.”

The professor then pours the pebbles into the mayonnaise jar and shakes it lightly so the pebbles settle into the open areas between the golf balls.  Again he asks the students, "is the jar full?"  Once again, half the class says, “yes.”  But half say, “no, there is still space between the pebbles.”

The professor now pours sand into the mayonnaise jar and shakes it so that the sand fills up the remaining spaces between the pebbles.  He again asks the students, "is the jar full?"  This time, most of the students agree, "yes, the jar is full."  But one insightful student says, “no, there is still some space between the grains of sand.”

The professor smiles.  He then pours a significant amount of water into the apparently full mayonnaise jar, filling all the invisible empty spaces between the golf balls, pebbles, and sand.  The students laugh.  Now he doesn't have to ask if the jar is full.  Instead he says:

“What if I had put the water in first, or the sand, or the pebbles?  The golf balls wouldn’t have fit into the jar without something overflowing.

"Pay attention to the big things that are most important to your life and happiness.  Play with your children.  Spend time with your parents.  Visit with grandparents.  Take time to exercise, eat well, and rest, too.  Spend time in nature.  Hold hands with your spouse.  Take time for yourself.

“Take care of the big things -- the golf balls -- first.  If you put in the big stuff first -- the stuff that really matters -- the small stuff will find a way to fit in.  And if it doesn't, it is just sand, or pebbles, anyway."

As integrative health practitioners, I encourage us all to take time to list our most important goals and priorities.  Once you’ve made your list, discuss it with your loved ones and friends, and commit to fitting the most important things into your life first, one day at a time.  Share this process with your staff, and your patients or clients, too.

For more on this "Life Assessment” process, see Level 6 of The Seven Levels of Healing, in The Journey Through Cancer: Healing and Transforming the Whole Person (Three Rivers Press, 2006), by Jeremy Geffen, MD.