The Pickle Jar Theory in Time Management

5 min readJan 2, 2021

One of the major headaches when it comes to time management strategies is how to account for all the things that aren’t in your initial plans. Most managers lose hours of their day to unexpected events and working through them. At that same time, what precious time there is to spare often gets filled up with tasks that aren’t necessarily that important. Combine these factors together, and it’s little surprise how employees at all levels can get overwhelmed.

With that said, there are methodologies specifically designed to help focus people and companies on the most essential tasks, and one of the most popular is the “Pickle Jar” Theory. As surprising as it may sound, this could be the first step to a more efficient, effective company.

The Pickle Jar Theory Explained

The Pickle Jar Theory is a visual metaphor designed to help set priorities over the course of a day. While many people have applied it to their own personal lives, it’s especially useful when talking about companies due to the sheer volume of wasted time on minor tasks.

To start, visualize a large glass pickle jar, packed to the brim with larger rocks, pebbles, and sand. In this metaphor, the jar represents your daily life, as well as how exactly you divvy up your tasks in your daily life. Each of the other components represents a different type of task:

  • Sand is the small disrupting elements that can happen to someone during their workday. These tend to be things like non-essential emails, phone calls, and social media notifications.
  • Pebbles represent the smaller jobs that you have to deal with every day, which need to be completed, but can be pushed to another day or delegated as needed.
  • Rocks are the larger-scale tasks, which could have serious consequences if not completed properly and on time. In addition, these are generally tasks only you can complete.

You may have a lot of different work that needs to get done over the course of a day, but the capacity of your day, just like the capacity of a pickle jar, is finite. This is part of where people struggle with their time management strategies. It’s natural to respond to something that instantly grabs your attention. For example, if you get a notification that another email came into your inbox, it’s natural to stop and take a look. If your coworker walks by your desk, you may want to flag them down and talk for a few minutes. What people don’t realize is that all these little adjustments end up having a larger time cost at the end of the day.

How so?

Let’s go back to the visual of the pickle jar. Say that you started filling things up with the sand, then the pebbles, then the rocks last. The chances are that you’re not going to have space for all the rocks. Let’s swap this mentality back to time management. If you’ve filled up your day with meaningless tasks and minor tasks that could be pushed or delegated, the tasks that require your most attention end up getting neglected. This can have serious consequences, as deadlines get missed, or work is done that’s below standard. All those little unimportant tasks can have a high cost in the end.

The Pickle Jar Theory isn’t just about telling professionals that they’re planning their days wrong, though. It also creates a framework to do it right. Let’s go back to the visual of that empty pickle jar, with the same amount of rocks, pebbles and sand that were there before. However, the filling order is different. First, all the rocks go in, then the pebbles, then the sand. The sand finds its way between the pebbles and rocks, and now, you were able to get all your components in the jar.

Applying the Pickle Jar Theory in Time Management

What does this mean for time management?

It means you need to prioritize. Your day should start with a concrete plan to get those essential “rock” tasks done, no matter what. After that, you should figure out a way to work the smaller “pebble” tasks in, and on days when that’s not possible, you need a plan to delegate or reschedule then. Finally, you let those little emails, chats and calls seep their way into your defined schedule, rather than being what defines it.

This can take time, as we essentially have to overcome our nature as humans with a shorter attention span. However, if managers can take the time to apply the lessons of the Pickle Jar Theory and lead by example, there will be a lot fewer examples of those task logjams that plague companies year after year.

Despite the silly name, the Pickle Jar Theory is actually a great basis for your time management strategies. This way, even in situations where you’re in a time crunch, you’re covered when it comes to the essential tasks that need to get done in a given day. However, the larger your organization gets, the more difficult it can be to determine what’s essential, what you have wiggle room to accommodate, and what needs to go on the back burner.

This is where time tracking software like actiTIME comes in. Via this software, you can have a full look at exactly how much time your team is taking to complete certain tasks. Think of this as the equivalent of measuring those rocks and pebbles before you put them into the jar. If you know exactly how much time it takes you to deal with essential tasks, you’ll know much time is available to grapple with items lower on your priority list. If you can’t even handle those essential tasks, you can adjust your team or strategy accordingly.

Online timesheet interface in actiTIME where every user can select task parameters
they want to see in their timesheets

Team bandwidth is always going to be a finite resource, but where managers get frustrated is figuring out how finite. The Pickle Jar Theory allows for a visual complement to your internal calculations, and time management software like actiTIME helps you put data behind the theory.




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