What are your big rocks?


  • Kevin Stewart explains how completing your most important tasks (the big rocks) first can help you make the most out of your day
  • Plan ahead - create two lists, one detailing the larger tasks, and another listing the smaller ones
  • Timing is everything – focus on your most important tasks first thing in the morning
  • Don't try to do everything yourself - learn to delegate tasks that can be handled by others

Spring on the farm is exciting. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve looked forward to the many tasks required to have the seeders ready when it was finally “go time.” However, I recall one job that my dad insisted had to be done before the seeders could roll. This job isn’t necessary for every farm but for our operation, this most boring of tasks always had to be done before anything else. I’m talking about picking stones.

Each spring, the crop of new stones the frost had heaved to the surface was nothing short of inconceivable. We all agreed picking stones was boring and often backbreaking work. But Dad understood the concept of doing first things first. I think most people understand it, but it takes great discipline to actually follow the principle. The picking-stones-first rule on our farm has turned out to be an excellent foundation for life.

When you put first things first you ensure a life and business that’s under your control because you’re actually following the priorities you establish.

Stephen Covey, author of the book First Things First, identifies what he calls the Big Rocks that help us make the most of each day. The Big Rocks principle works this way: choose a few big rocks each day to work on first, so you’re sure to get the important stuff done. The rest of your time can be carved up with smaller tasks. Just like picking stones before seeding, however, the Big Rocks approach sounds good but in reality it takes discipline to make it happen.

Running a farm can be like taking care of a toddler. Some days it seems like you’re not in control of anything as you respond to one near crisis after another. While we may get used to working in this constant state of distraction, you’re only working at a fraction of your potential. During these times, the best you can hope for is to complete some of the urgent tasks and simply put off the important items to another day.

According to Covey, when you put first things first you ensure a life and business that’s under your control because you’re actually following the priorities you establish. Makes sense, but how does one do this? Is there a way to choose a few big rocks each day so you actually get the important stuff done? Let me offer three tactics I developed on our farm.

1. Rethink

In order to do first things first, it may require that you rethink what the big rocks are. Try creating two lists, one highlighting the big rocks, those things that are important. The second list should include those things that typically seem urgent. This distinction is crucial because important issues keep your life and your business on track. Things that appear urgent typically steal your control of the day. As you make your lists, here are two considerations:

  • It’s OK to include profit, health and family as big rocks 
  • Anything that is the result of pressure from people or obligation is often a small rock

2. Timing

The next trick in doing first things first is timing. The National Institutes of Health reveals that our brains are at their best right after we wake up. If you rise early, this is typically the quietest time of the day as well. This first hour is your golden opportunity, so use it wisely. I know many farmers who reserve this hour solely for their big rock issues. These producers view the first hour as being so important that they guard it with boundaries to ensure they don’t get distracted by the little rocks first.

When you wake up tomorrow, try an experiment. See if you can avoid little rocks in that first hour – things like returning calls, going online, looking at emails or responding to texts. If you want your business to remain grounded, turn your smartphone to airplane mode for the first hour.

When a small stone goes through the combine, it can make a big racket but typically doesn’t create too many problems. When a big stone goes through the combine, it can cost you! So try to focus your first hour each day on the big rocks. 

3. Say no

The final piece that ensures I do first things first each day is that I’ve learned to say no. If you’re like me, you’re a people pleaser. There is something in you that’s uncomfortable seeing people disappointed. Saying no can be tough. For your own sanity, it’s important – so give yourself permission to say no.

If you need to attend every meeting, or be part of every decision on the farm, then you have some trust issues. Learn to delegate responsibility and let your people show you what they can do. Pick your big rocks – the charities you support, the places you volunteer, the jobs you do on the farm – then delegate or say no to the rest.

From a FCC Edge podcast with Kevin Stewart (@AGVIZ).