The phrases intentional living and simple living are often used interchangeably, with minimalism and slow living close cousins. The irony for many of us, however, is that the more we think about what we want to spend our time doing, the more we feel overwhelmed by all of the things we want to do, as we re-discover forgotten hobbies and interests. When your list of things you spend your time doing is all work and chores and Netflix, and your list of things you want to do is photography and painting and writing, then the yawning gap between the two suddenly becomes all the more apparent.

And while Netflix is easy enough to cut out, most of us still need to go to our day jobs and do chores. The struggle, then, becomes about trying to squeeze the hobbies in around the obligations – only to get so exhausted that Netflix wins out anyway.

Big rocks

You’re probably familiar with the ‘big rocks’ analogy. A jar loaded up with large rocks looks full, but there’s still room to pour pebbles in the cracks. When there’s no more room for pebbles, you can add sand to fill in the gaps. And when there’s no more room for sand, there’s still room for water. In the end, you can fit far more into the jar than if you’d just filled it with the big rocks and decided it was full.

That doesn’t sound like a very appropriate analogy for slow living. And I’m certainly not advocating that you fill every spare moment of your life.

But there’s another aspect to this analogy, which is that the big rocks have to go into the jar first. You can’t pour water and sand and pebbles in and then expect to put the big rocks in. They simply won’t fit.

In that sense, the big rocks are the most important things in your life. They’re the things that are in line with your core values, and the hobbies that you’re most passionate about. All kinds of things might fall into this category: caring for your children, pursuing a passion project, cooking nutritious food and exercising, working hard at your day job, etc. These are all the things that you absolutely must do, because they’re the things that make your life the life you want to live.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list, identify your big rocks first. What are the things that make your heart swell with joy? What are the things you care deeply about doing?

You might be surprised to see that I’ve included a day job in the above list. After all, aren’t we all working to ‘escape’ that?

I don’t think so at all. Of course, if you dream of owning your own business, you should absolutely pursue that dream with everything you’ve got. But for many of us the day job provides the financial security to pursue all the other things. Knowing I don’t have to rely on my writing to survive means I am free to pursue the stories that move me, whether or not I think they’re the most marketable ones I could be writing. Later, if I publish my stories and begin to build a career, I’d rather keep my day job and continue to be able to write the stories my heart craves, rather than feel compelled to write the ones most likely to put food on the table.

For me, as for so many others, my day job is tremendously important to me, because it provides the financial framework on which the rest of my life hangs. I work hard at it, and in return I get the money that pays my rent and bills.

Because I’m a total nerd, I like to set a goal for how long I want to spend on each of my big rocks, and actually put it into a weekly timetable. Yes, it’s colour-coded. And it has things like ‘sleep’ on it.

If a weekly timetable feels far too Type A for you, then perhaps incorporating these activities into a daily routine would help. For instance, I like to work on my novels in the morning before work, when my brain is fresh. By doing it this way, I don’t have to find a time to write, or to feel guilty that I haven’t written yet, because I do it first thing.

Pebbles

Once you’ve got your big rocks sorted, the pebbles come next. These are the things you do that support your everyday life and the big rocks – things like housework, basic hygiene, feeding yourself, etc. We can’t avoid these tasks entirely – though we can certainly outsource some of them to professionals – but they’re things that we need to make sure are being done to a basic standard on a regular basis.

I think this is the area that often leads to the feeling of being overwhelmed, because it tends to encompass a lot of ‘should’s. My house should be spotless. I should wear makeup to work. All my food should be cooked from scratch.

The key thing here is defining what things in this category actually do matter. Yes, you need to pay your bills. And yes, you need to clean your home (or pay someone to do it). But there’s a line – more like a yawning abyss – between ‘clean enough so as not to be a health hazard’ and ‘Pinterest ready’. And it’s okay if you skew more towards the untidy end than the perfect home end.

A lot of women talk about how stressed they are by a messy home. And, of course, if spending an hour a week tidying your home makes you feel less stressed, I’m not going to tell you to stop. But I can’t help wondering how much of this stress is caused, not by our surroundings, but by the expectations we place on ourselves? In other words, are we stressed by the mess itself, or by the fact that our homes don’t meet our excessively high standards?

The answer to that will vary from person to person. If you’re happy with the state of your home until you see the perfect pictures on Instagram, and the idea of spending more time cleaning stresses you out, then it’s okay to do the bare minimum.

The point of identifying your pebbles isn’t to fill every spare moment with perfecting more and more things. It’s to figure out how much time you reasonably expect to spend on these things. If you can get your home to an acceptable standard of cleanliness in one hour, but it takes two to make it pristine, then only do the extra hour if it matters to you.

I never iron my clothes. I have an ironing board and an iron, but I don’t think I’ve used them since I got better quality karate gis that don’t feel like sailcloth if they’re not ironed. Sure, I need to make sure I hang things properly so they don’t wrinkle, but I don’t care if my duvet cover is a bit wrinkled or my jeans a bit stiff. Even when I lived in the UK and line dried everything outside, I usually found that the wind softened them enough that they didn’t really need an iron, and that was good enough for me.

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, irons e v e r y t h i n g. That’s not an exaggeration. She irons socks and underwear. Because for her having soft socks in the morning matters more to her than spending her time on things other than ironing.

Neither of us is right or wrong here. We have different priorities when it comes to these supportive tasks, and where my mother-in-law might spend more time on laundry, I spend more time folding clothes because I am Very Particular about things being folded ‘correctly’.

It’s worth taking some time to think about what really matters to you here to make sure you’re not wasting time on things that aren’t important to you. Once you know how long these tasks take, and how often they need to be done, you can start playing around with scheduling for these as well, or incorporating them into your daily routines.

Sand

The next category is the sand. This is all the hobbies and leisure activities that don’t fit into the big rocks category, but that you still enjoy. For a lot of people this will be things like watching telly, reading blogs, and participating on social media. They’re all enjoyable activities, but hardly necessary ones.

I debated making these activities the pebbles, and the supportive tasks the sand, but decided against it because the fact is we all have to do those basic tasks. In contrast, the sand is the extra, the cherry on top. It’s the things we could, if need be, go weeks or months without – we just don’t want to because those things add value to our lives.

Unlike the big rocks and the pebbles, I don’t think these activities need to be scheduled or incorporated into a routine, because they’re not things that we particularly need to do. They’re extras, things that can be slipped in while waiting at the post office or indulged in after a busy day.

Water

The final category is the water. This encompasses all the things you feel you ‘should’ be doing, but don’t want to. Maybe it’s a volunteering gig you got roped into, or hosting family holidays. Whatever it is, if you truly don’t want to have any part of it, then I encourage you to say no to it. Your jar is full enough.

I think it can be easy to go through these categories and feel some resistance, especially in this last category. There might be hobbies that you think ‘should’ be big rocks but aren’t, or social obligations that you can’t imagine saying no to, even though you despise them. That’s normal and okay. It’s the same kind of feeling as decluttering your closet and coming across an ugly top you got as a gift. Even if you don’t feel ready to say no to these things, recognising their relative importance in your life is an important first step.

A final note

I think one of the most important aspects of intentional living is clarifying your priorities. It’s not just about cutting out the things you don’t want to do, but about making space for the things you do. By finding time for those first, life feels less overwhelming because we’ve already got the most important things covered.

Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

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Using the Big Rocks analogy to simplify your life