Put the Big Rocks in First. - Speaker | Mentor | Pádraic O'Maille | The Disciplines of Successs | Ireland

All morning long Reilly had trolled the deep waters off Inchagoill and the deck of his boat was brightly decorated with six portly trout. Just then the sun burst forth and the wind died a proverbial death. It wouldn’t take a Hemingway to know that there’d be no more trout ‘til conditions changed.

Always a man to make the best of any situation Reilly summarily rolled in his baits and headed straight for the idyllic island. Given the glorious day that was in it there was already a fine slew of the good and the great of the angling and boating community present.

Reilly rather fancied himself as a performer and loved nothing better than the adulation of a receptive and responsive audience.

Gathering a gabhall of dried logs and crisp kindling he dramatically ignited a roaring fire. 

As the crowd gathered around he unleashed his inner Jamie Oliver and expertly filleted and cleaned six of the freshly caught trout. He flashed them on his old black pan with some wild garlic, rosemary and mint that he’d collected near the shore. That fusion of fire, free fresh fish and frivolity had the crowd literally eating out of Reillys hands.

Seizing on the opportunity of a captive audience he then held up an old enamel bucket he used to bail the boat and placed it on a mound of stones he’d gathered from the shore.

‘I’m looking for a volunteer’ he proclaimed expansively.

As many hands shot up eager to participate in the shenanigans Reilly qualified his request.

‘This volunteer must be a SME. By that I mean they must be a subject matter expert in the area of quantity analysis and spatial awareness.’

This quietened the crowd until a cohort began to chant the name of Naughton. Naughton was a quantity surveyor by profession and a Scrooge by reputation. It was said that he could uniquely peal an orange in his pocket without anyone knowing.

Reilly summoned Naughton and asked him if he could fill the enamel bucket with as many stones as possible beginning with the big ones first. For Naughton this was a piece of cake. He smugly filled the bucket with the biggest stones first and then stood back admiring his handiwork.

Reilly then asked the gathered assembly if they agreed that not another stone would fit in the bucket.

To a person they agreed. Reilly maintained an awkward silence before picking up a kettle full of smaller stones and pebbles and gently poring them into the bucket. He then proceeded to pour a bottle of coarse sand into the bucket and it too fitted.

Reilly theatrically let the tension build before asking the group.

‘What does this prove?

Naughton was of course incandescent. 

‘It proves you deceived me. You never mentioned anything about any other stones.’

Professor Labhras Ó Maolchoimire, a Professor of management from the university interjected him and explained ‘it proves that in matters of time management it’s almost always possible to fit more in than we originally think.’ 

Reilly let the suggestions flow until a little girl called Chloe stepped forward and said.

‘It proves Reilly, that if you hadn’t put the big stones in first you’d never have fitted them in.’

Reilly beamed with satisfaction and whispered.

‘Out of the mouths of babes.’


Many of you have no doubt heard this story evangelised by the late and great Stephen Covey. Maybe, like me, you have forgotten about it’s core message.

At no time has this message been as relevant.

Now is the time to sit yourself down and seriously reflect on the big stones in your life.

‘Big stones’ is a metaphor for those things most valuable and important in your life. Maybe they might be:

  1. Your health
  2. Your family.
  3. Your community.
  4. Reinventing your business.
  5. Your cashflow.
  6. Making a contribution.
  7. Your attitude.

Whatever they are, identify and name them. Because if you don’t, a myriad of other things – the gravel and sand – will get in your way and distract you from what’s most valuable and sacred to you.

And then set out to make small progress in each of them on a daily basis. 


If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.’

— Stephen Covey.

‘Things which matter most should never be at the mercy of things that matter least.’


‘In today’s environment, the key to true productivity is not to get more things done, but to get the right things done.’
—Alan Merrill.


  • What are your big stones?
  • What actions will you take on each of your big stones?
  • When will you start?