• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

Beyond Perception’s Reach: First Things First by Denis McBrinn

Writing.ie | Member Blog

Golf Balls

Denis McBrinn

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“Put first things first and we get second things thrown in; put second things first and we lose both.” C.S. Lewis.

There is never enough time to do everything, but there is always the opportunity to do the most important things, first. Living our best life, is about committing fully to our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing. There is nothing more important than our development as human beings. Ultimately, life is about being and becoming.

I love to make lists – To Do Lists; To Have Lists; To Be Lists; Gratitude Lists; Bucket Lists; Wish Lists; and Shopping Lists! For me, going shopping without a list is like driving a car without a steering wheel – it is a recipe for potential disaster. But with every list comes the tricky challenge of priorities. What is most important? What comes first? The Italian economist Alfredo Pareto believed that 20% of our activities will account for 80% of the results. That means, if there are 10 things on my TO DO List, 80% of the value is derived from only 2 things. This is the famous “80/20” Rule or “Pareto Principle”.

What are your priorities for today?

What are your priorities for life?

What are the “golf balls” of your life?

One day a Philosophy professor stood in front of his class, about to deliver a lecture on the priorities in life. To the students bemusement he produced a very large, empty glass jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls – in complete silence – until he could get no more into the jar.

He then turned to the class and asked: “Is the jar full?”and they all agreed it was. He then produced a bag of tiny, silver, ball-bearings and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly and the ball bearings rolled into the empty spaces between the golf balls. He asked again if the jar was full, and they all agreed it was. He then produced a bag of fine silica sand and poured the sand into the jar, and of course the sand filled up everything else. He asked once again if the jar was full and the class responded with a unanimous “Yes!”

The professor then produced two cans of beer and was able to pour their entire contents into the jar, which was easily absorbed by the sand.

The whole class laughed. As the laughter subsided the Professor spoke:

“I want you to consider the empty glass jar as representing the life you have ahead of you, and you can fill that life with whatever you want. It is your choice. The golf balls are the most important things in your life – family, children, loved ones, health, wealth, ambitions, spiritual life etc. They represent the things that, if everything else was gone and only they remained, your life would still have meaning and purpose. You would continue to be happy and enriched. The ball bearings are some of the other things that might matter like, your job, career, house, car, status etc. And the sand is everything else – the small stuff that tends to distract us daily and sap our energy for living the life we truly want. But if you put the sand into the jar first, there will be no room for your golf balls or ball-bearings.”

“The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are really important to you. Therefore, give most attention to the things you believe are critical to your happiness. These are your “golf balls”. Make sure they go into the jar of your life, before anything else.”


“ Give priority to things like, your physical health, emotional and mental wellbeing; spiritual life; inner values; family and friends. There will always be time later to clean the bathroom; cut the grass and fix the disposal. Know your priorities. Golf balls first! These are the things that really matter – the rest is just sand.”

Then one of the students raised her hand and asked what the beer represented. The Professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked about the beer. It shows you have been paying attention. The beer is also essential because it reminds us that, no matter how full our lives may be – always make room for a couple of beers!!!”

Not all things in life are equally important. Identify your 2 most important activities and do them first thing! Doing your top priorities every day will produce the most value. But they are also likely to be the most challenging and are things we would prefer not to do, because they are difficult. They are precisely the things we will procrastinate over. Mark Twain called them “frogs”. “Frogs” are things we know are important but continue to procrastinate on, because we dislike them or are fearful. Mark Twain’s approach to procrastination, was to imagine it as having to eat a live frog. Do it first thing in the morning and get it over with. Then you can be pretty sure that for the rest of the day nothing as bad will happen! But if you put it off, the thought of doing something horrible hangs over you and saps all your energy for the rest of the day. Discipline yourself to do the most challenging and important tasks first and the rest of the day is a picnic! Force yourself to devour that “frog”, and things can only get better!

There is never enough time to do everything. But always make time to do the most important things, first. Living our best life is largely about continually assessing our priorities and reallocating our resources and energies to do them. Make your “golf balls” the priority and get them in before all the other stuff.

“Things that matter most, should never be at the mercy of those that matter least.” Goethe.

BEYOND PERCEPTION’S REACH is a collection of brief thoughts and reflections on the complexities and challenges of life’s mysteries. The weekly blog will explore some of the questions and personal challenges we face in our uncertain and confusing world. How do we bring a bit more joy, purpose and fulfilment to our “one wild and precious lives”?

© Denis McBrinn 2021

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