Brigid Cooling Coaching & Training

Rock Pebbles Sand: Macaroni Metaphors

Spoken word version of this post

In which I first discuss interpretations of the rock, pebbles, sand experiment and then perform my own using macaroni and arrive at new conclusions.

I was preparing a post on goals and how I find it useful to divide goals in to two groups – ‘lifestyle’ goals and ‘achievement’ goals where the latter are the usual stuff of coaching, the client wishing to achieve something specific within a given time frame.

Quite recently, though, I was working with a client who kept finding that incidents, obstacles and so on would pop-up at random and throw her off-course for a while. So I asked her to consider these incidents as big rocks in her path. She instantly took this metaphor and ran with it in a different way to what I had been thinking when I asked her about it. Her version (and coaching is all about the client so it matters not that she used the metaphor to suit herself) worked so well, and I found it also echoed well with my draft post on goals, and so I decided to explore this metaphor further. In the first half of the post I review the rocks, pebbles, sand model and in the second half, my own macaroni experiment!

Rocks, Pebbles, Sand

The basic visual or kinaesthetic reference is often referred to as “rocks, pebbles, sand”. A few months ago I actually saw it demonstrated and it was very powerful. If you take a large vase, some salt, some marbles and tennis balls, and fill it by first putting in the salt, then the marbles, and finally the tennis balls, you can get a certain number of tennis balls in to the vase before it is full, 8, say.

Now, if you first fill the vase with the tennis balls, fitting say 12 or so in there, then pour in the marbles, the marbles slide down and fit in the gaps between the tennis balls. You can then pour in all the salt which slides right in between all the remaining gaps. So, by starting with the tennis balls first, you can get more of those in, and still have the same quantity of marbles and salt.

Some people further add water or beer to show you can fit even more in (or – no matter how full your life, there’s always room for a couple of beers!).

There are two usual ways of using this metaphor – as a means of prioritizing activities in time management, and as a way of reducing ‘overwhelm’.


A. Fit your rocks in first – your most important activities – what’s important in YOUR life – family, career, attaining your dreams?

B. Fit in your pebbles – your routine activities that keep things ticking over and moving along – shopping, cleaning, bathing, piano practice, exercise or beauty regime.

C. The small stuff – email, phonecalls, texts, people who randomly drop by your desk or your home, myriads of tiny 1-2 minute jobs.

Reducing Overwhelm

A. Random ‘big rocks’ appearing as obstacles in your path. Some are predictable, others are not. Build up strategies for dealing with them when they do appear. EG. Figure out how you will deal with a wedding buffet when you are on a diet before you get there!

B. Regular ‘pebbles’ keep the path clear and firm. In railway terms, they are like the ‘ballast’ – reducing the pressure on the ground from the very heavy locos by spreading the load, and by keeping the sleepers, on which the tracks lie, in place. Examples could be regular routines for housework, bill paying, errands and so forth.

C. Sand. This has a couple of interpretations – (a) firm, compacted sand is often used as a bedding for marking out and laying paths, train tracks and so on. Perhaps tiny little actions that smooth life, or a ‘just do it’ or ‘put it back when you’ve finished’ approach (b) as anyone knows after a day at the beach, sand gets everywhere, in all your clothes, shoes, somehow in between your sheets, irritating and persistent! Life’s little interruptions! Recognize and develop strategies for dealing with them.

Macaroni Experiment

So where does the macaroni come in? As a scientist, I am drawn to experiment with things – tweak this or that and see what happens. I decided to carry out the “rock pebbles sand” experiment for myself to see if I could generate any further insights from it. However, for the sake of convenience, I chose to use macaronis and salt. I had some small, circular macaronis and some big, tubular ones with pointed ends. I decided that I must fit in 10 teaspoonfuls of salt and 100 small macaronis and see how many big macaronis I could get in.

This shows on the left, 10 teasp salt, 100 small macaronis and 30 big macaronis. On the right, 10 teasp salt, 100 small macaronis and 43 big macaronis.

Here’s where it got fun and generated lots of metaphors! I then decided to see if I could get more macaronis in the jar (with the same quantity of salt and small macaronis).
I banned myself from ‘cheats’ such as putting the macaroni anywhere and saying ‘who says the jar has to be just this big and the macaroni has to be in it’ or pulverizing the lot in to a fine powder. As a metaphor generator, I assumed that certain tasks etc had given ‘urgency’ or ‘time’ to do.

I had noted that lining the macaronis up may lead to greater success. Some 2 hours later, after many false starts, and much experimenting, and attempting to get macaronis to line up, I remembered I had some thin bamboo skewers in the cupboard. I then decided that I was going to get 60 macaronis in that jar come what may. Further experimentation followed until I finally put 15 skewers in the jar with 4 big macaronis on each, then inserted more skewers with small macaronis, wiggling deep inside the jar with a spare skewer and lastly, manually pushing in the small macaronis. And, ta da…

This picture shows on the left 60 big macaronis, 100 small macaronis and 10 teaspoons of salt AND about 20 or so bamboo skewers! (The jar on the left contains the original set up with just 30 big macaronis).

This photos shows the jar with the skewers removed. Ok, so they poke above the jar a little but not too much!

So by aligning the macaronis along the bamboo skewers I was able to DOUBLE the number of big macaronis while keeping the quantity of small macaronis and salt the same.

Insights and Metaphors from the Macaroni Experiment

1. Macaronis are hollow! There is space within your projects.
2. The skewers threaded through the macaroni helped significantly in providing alignment along different threads – perhaps the skewers can be likened to your values and beliefs. Keep your projects, routines, habits, lifestyle, achievements aligned with your foundation values. That way you can get more in!
3. It took many false starts, repeated attempts, some wiggling and prodding (and quite a bit of mess!) to get the jar so full. Don’t be afraid to examine your ideas along the way, and check you are still going in the right direction, or even to change direction along the way.
4. Pulversizing the lot in to a fine powder – I didn’t do this, but is potentially analogous to the Flylady’s “you can do anything in 15 minutes” mantra or the Getting Things Done model where you break things down in to tiny chunks or “next steps”.

Questions to Ask Yourself from the Macaroni Metaphors

1. What are your ‘bamboo skewers’ – your guiding principles, values, beliefs?
2. What do you want in regard to these principles?
3. How can you develop or experience these principles through your life?

Big Macaronis

4. What are your most important goals, targets, dreams, plans?
5. How do they align to the principles?

Small Macaronis

6. What daily habits, routines, processes align to your principles?
7. For each of your big macaronis, are there regular habits or routines that can help you achieve them?


8. What small, random events pepper your day – do you check your email every single time one arrives, do you always answer the phone even if you are talking with a colleague or friend, do you allow constant interruptions from colleagues, neighbours, family, pets? These sources of interruptions though are important in building relationships with others. How can you turn this ‘irritating’ salt in to useful and foundational salt?

9. How big is your ‘salt’ – what is the smallest quantity of time you are willing to schedule – 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour? Think about the different things you need to do, your attention span, things you can perhaps do while waiting for other things to happen with your big macaronis? Notice, macaronis are hollow, some of the salt gets right in there!

Well, I definitely had a great deal of fun exploring this metaphor and its definitely given me food for thought, particularly in how to identify my guiding principles in life. I hope you find it useful to!

If you know of any great tools for uncovering your values and beliefs, add them below in the comments or if you find this metaphor useful or have any of your own insights to add – please do!

This post was originally made on

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  1. I love it! You really took that analogy to town XD

    And useful insights gained from it – there is definitely more resistance when your tasks aren’t aligned with your principles, and less work gets done 🙂

  2. Thanks IL 😀
    It’s done me good to reread it actually! A mini-refresher in pasta management LOL.

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