The late Stephen Covey used to say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Sometimes he would then demonstrate this using a bucket and rocks. If you have a limited amount of time (a bucket) and fill it with pebbles or sand first (email, Netflix, Twitter, distractions, etc.) there’s not much room for the big important stuff (the rocks). But if you start with the rocks — take care of the big things first — then (magically) the pebbles slide between the rocks.

Rocks & SandAlong the same lines, Verne Harnish (Scaling Up: 149) writes: “Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance.”

In a highly distracted culture and age, where opportunities (and expectations) abound, it can be very difficult to maintain a white-hot laser focus. We can be so easily lulled into thinking that many great things deserve our attention that we lose sight of the main thing.

Marriages and families can become painful examples of little rocks (gravel) squeezing out the big rocks. So often we race between sporting events with the kids, school commitments, church meetings, and the rest, letting these things displace simple time together where we actually communicate and connect.

In organizations, the same holds true. Entrepreneurs constantly shift their priorities. Their gift to our culture is the gift of innovation and creation. But organizational formation and strength also requires disciplined and determined prioritization. At times, the pressure of competition (or decline) can drive us to frenetic extremes. But businesses and organizations who can accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the emerging trends (rather than fads) within their field, are best positioned to re-calibrate their efforts and succeed.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Churches rarely seem to get this right. What is the main thing? It will vary from place to place and group to group. The answer to the question is not found in some effort to exegete the specific mission of Christ. Rather, it is unique to each congregation based on gifts, strengths, opportunities, needs, history, size, and resources. Who has God drawn together? What is He calling this congregation to be and do? How are they wired? Where do their deepest passions lie as they follow Christ?

Take a moment to identify “the main things” in your own marriage, family, church, or workplace today. What would they be? How might you take the gravel and sand out of the buckets today, and fill them first with the rocks?

Transformational leadership flourishes with this kind of focus.

David Timms is Dean of the School of Christian Leadership at William Jessup University.