Let’s face it, we all have too much to do. 

Swamped with a barrage of tasks, we meander through hoping to come out on top at the end of the day. On the few occasions we find ourselves freer, a new batch of tasks seems to appear out of nowhere and demand our effort once again. We rarely feel in control.

But a fulfilling life isn’t one empty of tasks with unlimited free time. Too much free time results in boredom and a lack of purpose. Having tasks or better yet, commitments, provides a sense of direction and keeps us from being ‘time poor’.

So how do we balance knowing tasks are good for us but accepting new ones will always appear?

This is where prioritization comes in.

Prioritization lets you handle life’s tasks in the best way possible. Without it, tasks will control your life and not the other way around.

The Big Rocks and the Jar: A Lesson in Prioritization

A high school science teacher wanted to demonstrate a concept to his students. He takes a large-mouth jar and places several large rocks in it. He then asks the class, “Is it full?”

Unanimously, the class replies, “Yes!”

The teacher then takes a bucket of gravel and pours it into the jar. The small rocks settle into the spaces between the big rocks.

He then asks the class, “Is it full?”

This time there are some students holding back, but most reply, “Yes!” The teacher then produces a large can of sand and proceeds to pour it into the jar. The sand fills up the spaces between the gravel.

For the third time, the teacher asks, “Is it full?”

Most of the students are wary of answering, but again, many reply, “Yes!”

Then the teacher brings out a pitcher of water and pours it into the jar. The water saturates the sand. At this point, the teacher asks the class, “What is the point of this demonstration?”

One bright young student raises his hand and then responds, “No matter how full one’s schedule is in life, he can always squeeze in more things!”

“No,” replies the teacher, “The point is that unless you first place the big rocks into the jar, you are never going to get them in. The big rocks are the important things in your life …your family, your friends, your personal growth. If you fill your life with small things, as demonstrated by the gravel, the sand, and the water…you will never have the time for the important things.

So, what are the “Big Rocks” in your life? Spending time with your children, your parents or your spouse? Taking the seminar or class to get the information and perspective you need to succeed? Making the time to set goals, plan or evaluate your progress? When you are hassled because there is no time, remember the story about the Big Rocks and the Jar!”

Like every creature on this earth, we are time bound. We can’t do everything at once. Prioritizing the most important things keeps us grounded. These are the ‘big rocks’.

Reflect on what the big rocks in your life are.

Your big rocks can be your major life goals. They can also be the aspects of your life in line with your core values. Or they can be the domains of your life that are most important to you such as family.

Your rocks might qualify as big due to their importance or duration. A work project with a week’s deadline can feel as crucial as a plan to pass an exam in a few months.

Whatever your big rocks are, ensure they come first.

A simple heuristic is to start with the one thing that will make the rest of your day or week easier. Once this big rock is complete, move onto the next one.

Prioritizing the big rocks that will make your upcoming days easier is an investment in your future. You build the habit of placing what’s essential in your life first. 

People who don’t tend to experience a lack of control at some point later down the line. They feel adrift, fighting to keep their heads above water. At worst, a continuation of this can turn into a feeling of existential dread. It’s their bodies and minds signalling to them that something is off, that they’re not living by their goals, values and important life domains, everything our big rocks should be based on. As the rocks and jar story shows, if you underestimate the order of your priorities, you won’t have time for them later on.

Prioritization Rocks

Committing to the one thing that will make the rest of your days easier is a quick way to activate prioritization in your life. But what if there was a systematic way to master life’s priorities that also uses the concept of focusing on the one thing? This is where MoSCoW Prioritization comes in.

MoSCoW Prioritization

MoSCoW Prioritization is a prioritization technique developed in the 1990s by software developers who wanted an agile way of mastering their priorities and communicating realistic objectives to stakeholders.

The idea with this type of prioritization is to provide a straightforward framework that anybody can fall back on when they have too many things to do and too little time. While it was created in a business and project management context, it can be applied in day-to-day life.

The MoSCoW Approach

The name MoSCoW Prioritization comes from the initials of the four prioritization categories in the framework: Must have, Should have, Could have and Won’t have (this time). This prioritization framework is best used within specified time periods. Think about the deadlines you have for goals in life and work and apply this framework to reap the best results from prioritization.

Prioritization MoSCoW

Must have requirements are absolute necessities. In life or work, they cannot be compromised.

In the original project management context, failure of even one Must have requirement means failure of the whole project, such is their vital nature.

Must have requirements are our biggest rocks. You can see the parallels with the prioritization technique mentioned before—our Must haves need to be the first things we focus on day by day to make the rest of our days easier within our deadlines. Not putting them first in the context of our lives is a failure of dedication.

Should have requirements are important but not essential. 

Within the timelines set for ourselves, we ought to have enough time to complete them. But they aren’t as time-critical as Must have requirements and this means we don’t place them at the same level of importance.

Should haves are the next biggest rocks. Once we’ve completed our Must haves, we commit our attention to them.

Could have requirements are desirable but like Should haves, not necessary.

Once the higher priorities are completed, Could haves can be included if there’s time. This makes them the first level of contingency—if during your pursuit of other requirements there’s a lack of time, Could have requirements can be dropped.

Won’t have (this time) tasks are the lowest priority. 

In a situation where you have excess tasks and not enough time to do them all, Won’t have tasks are removed. In a project management context, Won’t have tasks aren’t necessarily abandoned forever, they can be reconsidered for future periods of work.

In our lives, this means accepting that we won’t do them within the deadlines we’ve set ourselves (since other requirements take precedence) but we can postpone them to a future time.

This needn’t be a setback. Remember, prioritization is about accepting the reality that no human being can do everything they want in any period of time, that’s impossible. There’s a parsimony to cutting away what’s inconsequential—you’re arranging your lifestyle within the parameters of reality.

Of course there may be situations where you have no Won’t haves since all your goals and requirements fit within the time periods set. However, due to the likelihood of new tasks appearing or existing tasks taking longer than expected, it’s very likely we’ll encounter Won’t haves at some point, such is the way life unfolds.

Balancing Priorities via MoSCoW

As there are four different prioritization categories, how do we know how much time to divide to each of them?

While there is no set answer, the original business context MoSCoW Prioritization was developed in provides a guideline.

Prioritization Balancing

For Must haves, it recommends that you spend around 60% of your time and effort towards these requirements. 

There’s a logic behind this. Due to a combination of importance and duration in what we spend our time on, the Must haves/Biggest rocks should take up most of our time. That signifies a life of commitment behind purposes. 

Too little time spent behind Must haves (such as less than half your time) and you’re effort towards meaningful goals isn’t enough. Too much time and you risk leaving yourself no slack if other tasks emerge which will prevent you from doing your must haves properly. Remember, Must haves are non-negotiable—they have to be completed and shouldn’t be compromised.

For Could haves, the original context recommends 20% or so of your time and effort.

The reasoning is that completion of Could haves in our lives is the best case scenario with every single task in the framework accomplished. However, desirables which are ideal but not necessary shouldn’t comprise too much of our time. If they’re prone to removal, then you don’t want more than 20% of your priorities sacrificed.

This leaves the remaining 20% or so of time and effort towards Should haves.

This also makes sense—you should be able to complete at least 80% of what you plan for.

Of course the allocation of time and effort isn’t fixed for everyone. Adapt the guidelines to your life.

Strengths of MoSCoW Prioritization

We’ve all prioritized at some point in our lives even if we did so unknowingly.

Perhaps you numbered a list of work tasks in an order of completion. Or maybe you classified tasks as high, medium or low.

You can see how both of these alternative methods are weaker than MoSCoW. The high, medium or low and numbering methods don’t stress the necessity of completing a task the way MoSCoW does. They fail to set expectations on time and effort towards completion. Particularly in the case of the numbering method, they’re less effective at dealing with tasks of similar importance.

You might be wondering how MoSCoW deals with tasks of similar importance such as how to distinguish between Should haves and Could haves when tasks seem equally desirable. One tip is to pay attention to the intensity of your feelings when you’re thinking about omitting a Should have or Could have requirement. If labelling a task as a Could have seems too painful, then it’s likely a sign that it’s of great importance to you and is better considered a Should have.


Prioritization is the key to balance: balancing the effort behind commitments we want to pursue and new tasks that arise.

We all have our own ‘Big rocks’, things that are most important to us, but we don’t always prioritize these in daily life. Active prioritization places these at the forefront of your days, signalling to yourself and the world that energy behind goals, values and domains that are pivotal to you must be respected. We can start with the one rock that makes the rest of our day and week easier and proceed to the next when accomplished.

The MoSCoW approach boosts your prioritization skills even further. By separating your tasks in to Must haves, Should haves, Could haves and Won’t haves, you’re optimising your tasks to fit within the parameters of reality. You’ll be able to focus on what’s most important to you without getting overwhelmed by tasks of less significance.

We’re all forced to prioritize whether we realise or not so we might as well be active in how we do it. Use these approaches to order your life by your own agenda.