Suzanne Manser, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

Strategies for Intentional Days: The Mason Jar Challenge

Imagine a mason jar. The jar represents your day today. Next to it are a pile of big rocks, a pile of pebbles, and a pile of sand. The rocks represent the most important bits of your day, the pebbles are the medium important bits, and sand is the smaller, daily bits that generally get accomplished (e.g., brushing your teeth, cleaning up after dinner, scrolling through social media).

The rocks, pebbles, and sand are whatever you decide to focus on or put effort into – they could be things like today’s work tasks, spending time with your partner, or cleaning the bathroom. They can also be a mindset or an emotion. For example, one of the rocks might be, “I want to approach challenging moments with curiosity instead of judgment.” A pebble could be, “I will remind myself to be present throughout the day.” Or, “I want to feel bold today.”

What you choose to put in your piles can have a meaningful impact on how you feel in your day. First though, you have to get them into the jar. As it turns out, the order in which you fill your jar matters. If you start with the sand, you will fill the entire jar and there will be no room for pebbles or rocks. If you start with the pebbles, there will be room for lots of sand in the cracks between the pebbles, but not rocks. If you start by filling the jar with rocks, there will be room for pebbles in between the rocks, and then there will be room for sand.

I love this metaphor; I frequently need the reminder to pay attention to how I orient my day. A day filled with rocks – or focused on just one or two rocks – has a very different feel than a day with no rocks in it. I have a different feel – by prioritizing what is important to me, I am actively putting myself in the driver’s seat. I automatically feel more fulfilled, engaged, and empowered. I keep talking and writing about this living intentionally thing because it does make such a meaningful difference in our experience of the day and of life, and yet it is SO difficult to do on a regular basis. Having strategies like this mason jar metaphor helps.

How intentional are you about your day? How do you fill your mason jar? Do you randomly put in whatever is in front of you, or do you thoughtfully choose from three curated piles? Or does your jar seem to fill itself? What does your jar look like at the end of the day?

If you have a few minutes right now, think about what you have to do today. Easy peasy, right? Now think about what you want to do today (given the reality of your day). Think about how you want your day to go. Think about how you want to feel at the end of the day. When you stop and think about it, what is most important to you? How do you want to impact yourself, others in your life, the world in general? Identify your rocks and identify your pebbles. There may not be room for all of them as you go through your day. Prepare to make choices.

Consider doing this strategy for a week or, even better, a month: Each morning, take a minute or two to think about what is on your plate for the day and what is important to you. Identify 2-5 rocks and 3-6 pebbles (adjust these numbers up or down as feels appropriate). Write them down somewhere. You don’t generally need to worry about the sand – the sand will fill itself in.

Next, spend a few minutes figuring out how you will actually prioritize, focus on, or accomplish the rocks today. Some may already be a part of your day or otherwise require no extra effort. When this is not the case, make a plan:
• set reminders on your phone/computer to focus on the rocks, especially if they are mindsets;
• put sticky notes up around your work space or home space with a reminder word/phrase
• schedule in your calendar a realistic time to accomplish tasks or get them started. Decide what you will need in order to accomplish the tasks;
• if you want to feel something, figure out what you will need to do to feel it and how to do that today. Or schedule a time to figure this out.
• plan a time at the end of the day to check in with yourself about how it all went (accountability helps!).

After you’ve prioritized the rocks, do the same for the pebbles. The whole thing can take under 10 minutes. It will probably take some practice to remember to follow through consistently throughout the day. Pay attention to how you and your day feel when you do some of these things.

As I’ve gotten older and life has gotten busier and more challenging, I’ve come to truly appreciate how much I can influence the flavor of my day. When I’m not paying attention, the day can easily feel like a grind. When I’m living intentionally, it’s more interesting. I’m more focused, and I’m focused on things that are meaningful to me. I generally feel more invigorated at the end of an intentional day.

Even so, putting this into daily practice does not come easily to me. What comes easily to me is looking at Facebook and posting pictures of my kids. I often don’t even remember that I can make this day better and that it is important to me to do so. Life is too distracting. So I put in place a “strategy” for making the time to strategize about living intentionally: I have scheduled my weekdays to start with meditating, and then I write down what I am grateful for and how I want to show up in my day. (Side note: I have “intended” similar routines in the past without successful follow through. There are many things that are making it stick for me this time, including experiencing positive results and feeling the need to walk my talk.)

Thinking about how I want to show up in my day is my current strategy for living intentionally (I talk about this in The Value of Values), in addition to my consistent strategy of daily gratitudes. I need the structure of these strategies to stay connected to my rocks and pebbles throughout the day. Without them, I get too pulled by things that are important to others, or things that just aren’t really important at all (I’m looking at you, Facebook). When I’m not paying attention, my jar gets filled with a lot of sand and only an occasional pebble or rock. Those are not very satisfying days.

When I talk with folks about living intentional days, they, like me, want strategies. I often start with the mason jar strategy, because I just love it and it resonates with a lot of people. But like any strategy, it eventually loses its luster. It becomes rote and boring. We need more. I’ve created a few strategies, and I’ve learned a bunch from other people. Here are some that I rotate through:

• Identify 5-10 of your core values: Think about what you stand for as a person, what is most important to you in how you live your life. (For those asking: “Do you mean how I am living now or how I ideally want to be living?” the answer is “How you ideally want to be living.”). Each morning, choose one of these values to focus on throughout the day. Look for opportunities to make choices in alignment with that value.
In The Value of Values I talk more about this strategy and describe how my days change when I show up with intention.

• Ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of this day?” Write down 1-3 things that you want today. It might be something you want to accomplish or something you want to feel. When was the last time you asked yourself how you want to feel today? Do you want to feel excited at some point today? What could you do to make that happen? Brainstorm small steps and big steps.

• Ask yourself, “How can it get better than this?” Figure out a way to make this moment or this day better than it is. Getting outside for ten minutes, going to a favorite restaurant for dinner, talking to a good friend, trying to not take anything personally, listening to your favorite song really loudly in the car on the way home, identifying the people in your life who make you feel best about yourself, going to bed an hour early – any of these might make a day better. Look for and plan for small and larger experiences that will improve your day (i.e., think about what makes you feel good and do some of it!). As simple as this sounds, we don’t tend to do this for ourselves.

• If you already have goals for the week, month, or year, identify a small step you could take toward one of those goals and take it today. If you are feeling particularly energetic, identify a medium step you could take in the next couple of days. It can be kind of an exciting puzzle, realizing that you can get yourself closer to meaningful goals in a number of different ways today.

• Picture your ideal day. It may be a day on an ideal vacation, an ideal weekday or weekend day, or an ideal day five years into the future. Take a few minutes to really hone in on what makes that day ideal for you. Is it the state of relaxation you feel? The people you’re with? The beauty of your environment? A feeling of contentment with life? A feeling of engagement with life? The satisfaction of accomplishment? Write down as many as you can identify, and then choose one to focus on every day. See what you can do to cultivate a little feel of that piece within the day.

Strategies such as these help us pay attention so that we can be more in charge of our day. We need to be alert and on the lookout for opportunities to prioritize our rocks and pebbles, because those moments are often small and fleeting and miss-able. So take the mason jar challenge, and find out what you’ve been missing.

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