I sit here with my 3×5 cards listing BIG ROCK on some and ROCK on others. I came to the Making the Most of Your Local Advantage seminar to pick up some blogging techniques, which I did. The how-the-devil-to-prioritize stuff was a big bonus.
A future post will creep a little into writing at the seminar. Meanwhile, Nieman Fellow Dean Miller’s story of the jar (as relevance would have it, a Ball jar) was one of his main props. I’d heard the underlying story before, but this self-described nag played the implications for writers beautifully.
Miller, shown here in a FocusWest PBS pic, is off from his duties at the Idaho Falls Post Register.
Just in case you haven’t heard the jar story, it runs like this. A fellow puts a Ball jar on the desk. It has three big rocks in it, one poking out the top. He asks whether the jar is full and people enthusiastically say it is.
He then pours pebbles into the mouth. They fill the spaces around the rocks. He asks whether it is full now. Folks say, a little less enthusiastically, that it is.
This repeats, first with sand and then with water. Each time, the doubt rises in the audience and more stuff goes into the full jar.
There are different morals to infer from this process. Miller made it career personal.
Scheduling the Big, Good Stuff
It is a pretty accurate stereotype that newspaper reporters (and any writer) have a barrow full of essential work to do. After those tasks, they often are out of time or energy to get onto that great investigative piece (or novel or magazine article) that they really, really know they have in them.
Good Cliché: Miller’s a colorful speaker, even to drawing onto Western images. He use one that surely will stick in the mind of writers wh o consider themselves overworked and hard pressed to find the time for the big rocks. He quoted a Blackfeet aphorism — the wolf hunts with the teeth it has.
The technique he advocated and facilitated (in his nag capacity) was to get commitments for some of the big rocks we want in our jar, but always seem to have excuses for not doing. He sais that the “only obstacle is excuses,” and challenged us to choose “to be one of the happy or one of the many.”
Essential to this is committing that day to one or more big rocks. That commitment comes with a list of the big-rock steps if necessary, each with a target completion date. He said that breaking it down into manageable chunks was essential to the busy. That might mean a 15-minute piece of phone or internet search related to the larger article or book. List those and check them off as you do them instead of goofing off or socializing during a break.
Miller stayed true to his description. He provided each of us with a big-rock sheet for the details. We self-addressed them, so that he can send them in a month. Nag. Nag. Nag.
He suggested that this can work well for procrastinators. “Most of us rebel against structure,” he said. Yet, he used poets as an example, adding that they often did their best work in a highly restrictive form, such as a sonnet.
Well, I’m sitting with several big rocks before me, enumerating the steps and trying to balance reasonable deadlines.