November 01, 2022

Let’s Talk about Rocks in the Attention Economy

There is a well known and illuminating story about rocks, pebbles, sand, maybe a little water, and a jar. It has been around for decades in various forms. However, I think the paradigm has shifted in the last few years and now there is a new lesson to be learned.

If you haven’t heard it before, here is the story.


A professor walks into a lecture hall. On a table she places an empty jar. She stands before the jar and from a box she pulls out five rocks. She places the rocks into the jar, with the last rock fitting in just below the brim. She asks the students, “Is the jar full?”

The students look at the jar and confirm that the jar is indeed full. Next, from the box, she removes a bag of pebbles and proceeds to pour them into the jar. The pebbles shift and slide around the rocks and fill in amongst the spaces between the larger rocks. She then again asks the students, “Is the jar full?” Once again, they reply that yes, indeed, the jar is full.

The professor then retrieves a bag of sand from the box and slowly pours that into the jar while shaking the jar a bit. After a few seconds of shaking and pouring all of the sand has gone into the jar. She once again asks the students, “Is the jar is full?”

The students look at the jar and see that all of the space between the big rocks appears to be filled by pebbles and sand right up to the brim of the jar. Nothing else looks like it will fit, but they have been burned by this question before. They hesitantly respond that the jar appears to be full.

The professor then pulls out a glass of water and proceeds to pour the water into the jar. The water fills it right to the brim, but it all goes in and she says, “now, the jar is full.”

The professor then goes on to tell the students that the jar represents their life and the rocks, pebbles, sand and water represent all of the things they give their attention and time.

The rocks represent the most important things in life, typically family, health, and relationships. The pebbles represent the next level of importance, maybe work, school, things that are worthy pursuits but don’t rise to the level of rocks. The sand represents everything that takes time but is not of nearly as much consequence and would not necessarily have an impact if a few grains didn’t make it into the jar. Finally, the water is everything else that fills up the rest of your days.

There are numerous lessons within the story, but the general lesson is that you need to know what are big rocks in your life and then schedule and take care of those first. If those are not the first thing in the jar, they will never fit. Spend time with your loved ones, take care of your health, focus time and energy on relationships. Fit those big rocks in your jar and then add in the pebbles of work, school, television, social media. Shake in the sand of everything else that pops up throughout the day and you can be sure that something will come in like that glass of water and fill up your remaining time.

Now that you know the story and the decades old lessons, let’s talk about what has changed in the last few years that has shifted the paradigm. It’s called the Attention Economy and the goal of the Attention Economy is to make everything look and feel like a rock. The goal is to make what is happening on the mobile phone more important than the family member or friend sitting in front of you, and sadly, it has been working.

Why is it called the Attention Economy? Because your attention is the product that these companies are selling or that products are demanding and the way to get your attention is to make everything seem like a rock. This is done by using the same strategies that casinos and marketers have used for years...lights, sounds, “likes” and many others. All designed to make you feel that whatever is happening on that mobile phone is the most important rock in your life at that very moment.

Need proof? Think back to any restaurant 15 years ago. If you were having a meal with someone, the restaurants did not have phones installed on every table. At home, if the phone rang, someone likely had to get up from the table and walk away to answer it. One would never dream of taking a phone call while sitting at the table with others. Now, there are as many phones at the table as people, and even if someone doesn’t take a call, chances are they will interrupt the conversation to at least “shoot a quick text back”. Really? Is that a rock?

Or, how about driving a car and texting? How completely absurd is it that we are driving down a highway at 75 miles per hour in traffic and feel the need to respond to a text? That text feels like a rock, but we all know it is not.

When it comes to Instagram, Tik Tok, Facebook or any other social platform, we have all very likely turned these grains of sand into substantial rocks that are filling far too much space up in the jar of our life.

What is the guaranteed, foolproof solution to use against this new and powerful paradigm of the Attention Economy trying to turn everything into a rock? It is quite simple. Place your mobile phone in a jar. Drop the five rocks on top of your mobile phone. Pour a bag of pebbles on top of the rocks and phone, then dump a bag of sand on top of the rocks, pebbles and phone. For good measure, finally pour in that glass of water. That should do it.

In all sincerity, the antidote to the Attention Economy is making a plan for your attention before there is demand for your attention. You need to be proactive instead of reactive. Here is a hint, it is much easier to be proactive when the mobile phone is not in your hand and a Ninja Planner is a great tool to use for this task.

To be truly effective, this is a process you will need to invest a little time into on a regular basis, but the rewards for this will be significant.

Start by using pen and paper and write down the 3-5 most important rocks in your life. These can be individual people, health related, or anything that rises to the “rock level” for you, but it needs to be only 3-5 items. This list should be something you see daily. It can be stuck to your bathroom mirror or written on some paper in your Ninja Planner. You need to see this daily as a reminder of what is truly important in your life.

Now, the cadence of the next step is up to you, but you need to proactively ensure that these rocks are scheduled into your life before you fill your time with anything else. You can do this on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis but most likely, some combination of all of these. You need to look at your schedule and ensure those rocks appear there. It could mean that you start each day by going down your list of rocks and comparing it to your plan for the day. If the rocks are missing, make changes before you get the day going. Remember, if you are not being proactive, the Attention Economy will win.

Now you can schedule in and think about those pebbles. Fit everything else around your rocks.

Here is another mindset you have to adopt to win against the Attention Economy. Write this one down and then commit to it:

“I will not sacrifice a rock to include pebbles or sand and I am willing and able to accept the positive and negative consequences of that choice.”

If family is a rock for you it means that you are committed to going to your child’s soccer game and not missing it for that last minute showing. You accept the joy and fulfillment of being at the soccer game and you accept the consequence of a potentially upset buyer.

If relationships are a rock for you, it means you accept the joy and fulfillment of an hour spent in conversation with a friend without being interrupted by your phone and accept the consequence that someone may have to wait for an hour to hear back from you.

If health is a rock to you it means you accept the joy and fulfillment of getting a scheduled workout in and accept the consequences of not immediately responding to a text or email and missing your workout to meet the pebble or sand that just popped up in your inbox.

One last quick tip, if you are feeling overwhelmed and crunched for time and don’t know what choice to make, or what to do and not do, stop and ask yourself this question: Is this a rock or pebbles and sand?

Always take care of your rocks first. Everything else is just pebbles and sand.

A professor walks into a lecture hall. On a table she places an empty jar. She stands before the jar and from a box she pulls out five rocks. She places the rocks into the jar, with the last rock fitting in just below the brim. She asks the students, “Is the jar full?”


The students look at the jar and confirm that the jar is indeed full. Next, from the box, she removes a bag of pebbles and proceeds to pour them into the jar. The pebbles shift and slide around the rocks and fill in amongst the spaces between the larger rocks. She then again asks the students, “Is the jar full?” Once again, they reply that yes, indeed, the jar is full.

The professor then retrieves a bag of sand from the box and slowly pours that into the jar while shaking the jar a bit. After a few seconds of shaking and pouring all of the sand has gone into the jar. She once again asks the students, “Is the jar is full?”

The students look at the jar and see that all of the space between the big rocks appears to be filled by pebbles and sand right up to the brim of the jar. Nothing else looks like it will fit, but they have been burned by this question before. They hesitantly respond that the jar appears to be full.

The professor then pulls out a glass of water and proceeds to pour the water into the jar. The water fills it right to the brim, but it all goes in and she says, “now, the jar is full.”

The professor then goes on to tell the students that the jar represents their life and the rocks, pebbles, sand and water represent all of the things they give their attention and time.

The rocks represent the most important things in life, typically family, health, and relationships. The pebbles represent the next level of importance, maybe work, school, things that are worthy pursuits but don’t rise to the level of rocks. The sand represents everything that takes time but is not of nearly as much consequence and would not necessarily have an impact if a few grains didn’t make it into the jar. Finally, the water is everything else that fills up the rest of your days.

There are numerous lessons within the story, but the general lesson is that you need to know what are big rocks in your life and then schedule and take care of those first. If those are not the first thing in the jar, they will never fit. Spend time with your loved ones, take care of your health, focus time and energy on relationships. Fit those big rocks in your jar and then add in the pebbles of work, school, television, social media. Shake in the sand of everything else that pops up throughout the day and you can be sure that something will come in like that glass of water and fill up your remaining time.

Now that you know the story and the decades old lessons, let’s talk about what has changed in the last few years that has shifted the paradigm. It’s called the Attention Economy and the goal of the Attention Economy is to make everything look and feel like a rock. The goal is to make what is happening on the mobile phone more important than the family member or friend sitting in front of you, and sadly, it has been working.

Why is it called the Attention Economy? Because your attention is the product that these companies are selling or that products are demanding and the way to get your attention is to make everything seem like a rock. This is done by using the same strategies that casinos and marketers have used for years...lights, sounds, “likes” and many others. All designed to make you feel that whatever is happening on that mobile phone is the most important rock in your life at that very moment.

Need proof? Think back to any restaurant 15 years ago. If you were having a meal with someone, the restaurants did not have phones installed on every table. At home, if the phone rang, someone likely had to get up from the table and walk away to answer it. One would never dream of taking a phone call while sitting at the table with others. Now, there are as many phones at the table as people, and even if someone doesn’t take a call, chances are they will interrupt the conversation to at least “shoot a quick text back”. Really? Is that a rock?

Or, how about driving a car and texting? How completely absurd is it that we are driving down a highway at 75 miles per hour in traffic and feel the need to respond to a text? That text feels like a rock, but we all know it is not.

When it comes to Instagram, Tik Tok, Facebook or any other social platform, we have all very likely turned these grains of sand into substantial rocks that are filling far too much space up in the jar of our life.

What is the guaranteed, foolproof solution to use against this new and powerful paradigm of the Attention Economy trying to turn everything into a rock? It is quite simple. Place your mobile phone in a jar. Drop the five rocks on top of your mobile phone. Pour a bag of pebbles on top of the rocks and phone, then dump a bag of sand on top of the rocks, pebbles and phone. For good measure, finally pour in that glass of water. That should do it.

In all sincerity, the antidote to the Attention Economy is making a plan for your attention before there is demand for your attention. You need to be proactive instead of reactive. Here is a hint, it is much easier to be proactive when the mobile phone is not in your hand and a Ninja Planner is a great tool to use for this task.

To be truly effective, this is a process you will need to invest a little time into on a regular basis, but the rewards for this will be significant.

Start by using pen and paper and write down the 3-5 most important rocks in your life. These can be individual people, health related, or anything that rises to the “rock level” for you, but it needs to be only 3-5 items. This list should be something you see daily. It can be stuck to your bathroom mirror or written on some paper in your Ninja Planner. You need to see this daily as a reminder of what is truly important in your life.

Now, the cadence of the next step is up to you, but you need to proactively ensure that these rocks are scheduled into your life before you fill your time with anything else. You can do this on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis but most likely, some combination of all of these. You need to look at your schedule and ensure those rocks appear there. It could mean that you start each day by going down your list of rocks and comparing it to your plan for the day. If the rocks are missing, make changes before you get the day going. Remember, if you are not being proactive, the Attention Economy will win.

Now you can schedule in and think about those pebbles. Fit everything else around your rocks.

Here is another mindset you have to adopt to win against the Attention Economy. Write this one down and then commit to it:

“I will not sacrifice a rock to include pebbles or sand and I am willing and able to accept the positive and negative consequences of that choice.”

If family is a rock for you it means that you are committed to going to your child’s soccer game and not missing it for that last minute showing. You accept the joy and fulfillment of being at the soccer game and you accept the consequence of a potentially upset buyer.

If relationships are a rock for you, it means you accept the joy and fulfillment of an hour spent in conversation with a friend without being interrupted by your phone and accept the consequence that someone may have to wait for an hour to hear back from you.

If health is a rock to you it means you accept the joy and fulfillment of getting a scheduled workout in and accept the consequences of not immediately responding to a text or email and missing your workout to meet the pebble or sand that just popped up in your inbox.

One last quick tip, if you are feeling overwhelmed and crunched for time and don’t know what choice to make, or what to do and not do, stop and ask yourself this question: Is this a rock or pebbles and sand?

Always take care of your rocks first. Everything else is just pebbles and sand.




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