Juggling Life – What Can Be Removed/What Can Be Dropped?

Busyness is a hallmark of our generation. As much as we may rage against it, many of us (myself included) often wear it as a badge of honour. The pursuits that keep us busy can give us purpose and help us feel validated.

And most of the things that keep us busy are “good”. A meaningful career, maintaining a unique family culture, belonging to a faith community, social commitments and extracurriculars; then there is exercise and self-care, home management and other life responsibilities. But I know I’m not the only one that can feel like the pace and demands of all these “good” things can end up feeling like too much; and, inevitably, along with the good, there will also be a lot of “hard” – often unpredictable – things that come our way.

A few weeks ago I read a blogger comment (Hi Kae!) about some advice from Cal Newport whose suggestion basically boiled down to this: if you’re having a hard time juggling all the balls you have in the air, the best solution is likely to remove a bunch of the balls.

Several years ago I was knee-deep in preschool life, wading through endless challenges with new home ownership, tending to what seemed like perpetually sick children (this has gotten approximately 1000x times better since the kids have gotten out of preschool so, for any parents of toddlers, there is hope) and solo parenting about 50% of the time. Translation: I was juggling A LOT of balls.

Around that time I picked up the book Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less by Tiffany Dufu. She encourages readers (women predominantly) to “drop the ball” which she defines as: releasing unrealistic expectations of doing it all and engaging others to achieve what matters most to us, deepening our relationships and enriching our lives. Sounds great. Sign me up, right?!

Then in the last year I came across a discussion of the different types of balls we juggle which adds a whole new layer to the discussion.

First up are glass balls – these break when we drop them. Glass balls might be a fragile family relationship. They might be work deadlines. They might be regular checkups to monitor cancer remission. These balls must be handled with care and we need to prioritize catching these balls.

On the other hand, rubber balls bounce when we drop them. These might be RSVPing in time for your child to attend a classmate’s birthday party. A rubber-ball might be keeping up with a daily running habit, signing up to join the PTA or weeding the garden.

None of us want to drop the ball – glass or rubber. And I suspect that Cal Newport is bang on when he encourages us all to pause the music and evaluate exactly what balls we’re trying to keep in the air. But before – or after – that thoughtful exercise, I think we’d do well to consider which balls are glass and which are rubber. When we’re surrounded by balls raining down on us, it can be very hard – nigh impossible – to differentiate between glass and rubber. We’re so overwhelmed we just scramble around desperately trying to catch each and every ball. And, inevitably, we’ll drop some glass balls along the way.

So how do we decide which balls to keep in the air?

How do we triage life?

The root cause of burnout is not that we have too much to do, it’s the feeling that the things we do aren’t meaningful or don’t reflect who we really are.

Tiffany Dufu/Dr. Ayala Malach Pines

Maybe emptying the garbage cans on Friday night doesn’t feel “meaningful,” but if you want to have a house that doesn’t smell like dirty diapers (toddler parents – this too shall pass), it requires taking the trash out on a regular basis. So, in a sense, garbage duty does likely reflect who we are (though, to be fair, if we dropped this ball once in a while, the world would not end).

Maybe the job that takes us out of town and away from our kids week after week isn’t actually meaningful to us. Maybe being on the PTA is a soul-sucking activity (or maybe it’s not…I know people who genuinely enjoy serving the school community this way).

Or maybe the burnout is caused by so many miscellaneous things blocking out the stuff that is meaningful; lazy weekend mornings at home or waking up at the crack of dawn to train for a marathon with a tribe of running friends. Activities that might get crowded out by cooking baked goods for a classroom fundraiser (not to disparage school fundraisers…but just sayin’). Maybe meaningful is family dinner three nights a week, but that gets crowded out by a book club you don’t even enjoy attending. Maybe meaningful is time spent researching 16th-century architecture (just for the fun of it), which gets crowded out by spending Saturday morning cooking from scratch.

I’m in a season of trying to simplify my juggling routine. I want fewer balls to manage. But out of those that remain, I don’t want only be glass balls – that doesn’t sound like a fun life.

I know there will always be glass balls, some of them unwelcome and unavoidable; glass balls like a surprising diagnosis or an aging parent. That is life, at least as an adult.

And I want to juggle some rubber balls, because they give life a unique flavour. But I still struggle with letting myself drop those rubber balls even though I’ve learned they will bounce back.

I’m starting to realize (this is a work in progress) that when I drop the same ball again and again, sometimes it’s okay to let it roll across the floor and get stuck under the couch. Then I can turn my attention back to the task at hand: keeping the rest of the balls in the air – sucking the marrow out of life when I can and finding joy and, at other times, simply showing up.

What about you? Are you juggling a lot right now? Any glass or rubber balls you’re ready to excise from your life? Are you good at prioritizing glass balls, or have you been like me – often just desperately trying to catch balls indiscriminately?

Header photo by Zak Neilson on Unsplash

21 thoughts on “Juggling Life – What Can Be Removed/What Can Be Dropped?”

  1. I like the distinction between glass and rubber balls! It’s funny that you used school obligations a couple times as an example, because that was one thing I learned early on to let go of. I still feel slightly guilty about it because the schools need parent involvement, but I just can’t do it.
    Now that my son is in college I feel like one of my glass balls has been removed, and while it’s kind of sad, I have to admit life is easier! It really does get easier as they get older, although if they’re involved in lots of activities in high school that can get really hectic. As you said… this too shall pass!

    1. I think because of COVID there have been very few opportunities for volunteering and other school events the last few years. Just recently I turned down a volunteer gig helping with the kids skating. It would have been very hard for me to fit it in and around my morning work schedule that day. I felt guilty because I know I have a lot more flexibility than many parents and that they need volunteers, but I was solo parenting that week and had to preserve my energy for parenting and work responsibilities of my own.
      I wonder what proportion of highly involved parents enjoy these activities at school and how many do it out of obligation? I do try to help where I can – but far less than I technically “could” and I’m okay with that…

  2. Great questions. I’m of the less-is-more school of busyness. Over these last two Covid years I’m finding that, like the Dr. Ayala Malach Pines quote suggests, if I do things because I feel they add meaning to my life, I am capable of juggling many things. BUT when I do things because somehow I think I should, life gets complicated. Yes to rubber balls, no to glass balls. Love that imagery.

    1. COVID has marked a big shift in thinking, often in a positive way. It has also paved the way for many people to carve out more work/life balance with flexible commutes.
      Maybe, too, when we were forced to remove so many of those “rubber” balls, we realized we preferred that pace of living?!

  3. Ugh this has been an awful week for juggling balls. Both kids have been home all week due to being sick. Phil has worked from home so he can help out but he’s extremely busy as his firm publishes a research publication on the 5th biz day so the first 4 are super busy for him and ideally he needs to be in the office. I put my out of office on and have been squeezing work in when I can. My husband is very helpful, but when the kids are sick, they want me. I just got promoted at work in the last week so I feel like a total fraud right now since I’m just doing the bare minimum to keep my head above water. But I tell myself this, too, shall pass and our kids will be sick less some day! So what I’ve dropped this week is exercising. I haven’t done a thing aside from taking Will for a stroller walk this afternoon with the hopes he would nap afterwards (he didn’t but it was still good to get fresh air on a nice winter day).

    All that said, I did really cut back on what I said yes to after having kids. I used to have a really full social calendar. Pre-kids, I said yes to way way way too much and then I wouldn’t look forward to, well, anything. I made strict limits about what I would say yes to and got better at saying no. I still struggle with believing/following through on no being a complete sentence, though. But at least I’ve gotten better at saying no so my calendar doesn’t get too overloaded! Besides that I have really relaxed my standards on the cleanliness of our house. I will kindly say something to Phil when it’s starting to bother me since he has taken on cleaning. I tell myself as long as I stay on top of laundry, which I immediately fold and put away – the thought of clean laundry in a laundry basket/stacks of clothes not put away makes me cringe! But someone else may cringe when they saw our floors, especially these days where the crumbs are numerous since Will is in a never-ending food throwing faze.

    1. You are in the thick of things (and also have just had a string of bad luck with all those viruses). This too SHALL pass and the kids WILL be sick less frequently, but it’s still such a tough, exhausting season.
      Kudos for cutting back on things.
      Floors. Oh…the floors. Ours show everything and in the winter wet socks make these streaks everywhere. It does drive me crazy but I just have to let it go (I do mop, but within 24 hours you honestly wouldn’t know it).
      The food-throwing phase will stop too…
      You’ve got a lot of tough phases going on right now!!! And lots of unavoidable parenting (and work!) balls in the air. Hang in there <3

  4. I love those analogies of glass and rubber balls they describe perfectly the types of tasks mothers are juggling all the time.

    Sometimes those rubber balls that roll away and end up under the sofa stay there because they solve themselves and cease to be a ball that needs to be juggled, so dropping them can be the right thing to do even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.

    I am juggling a lot of balls right now and managing to keep them all aloft. I make sure that there are times in my week when there is no juggling or very little juggling to do at all and balance that with days when there is a lot. The no juggling time is my reset, my rest it has taken me a long time to be ok with that, with allowing it into my life but it is here to stay now and I would not be without it. I protect it too, by saying no. Covid has helped me massively with this and it made me stop, I had time to reflect on how my life had been and how I wanted it to be in the future. Another shift for me has been to stop telling myself that I won’t be able to do all that I need to do as I know that is a massive stress inducer for me, I am learning to let go of that and trust that I will be able to and that I will get things done and if I don’t then that is ok too as I did my best. Lovely thought provoking post, thank you.

    1. What a great point! My tendency is to try to solve a problem right away…when often it will solve itself (with no effort) if I just leave it be. Those dropped balls can literally end up disappearing without any harm done.

      I have the same problem – of catastrophizing that I won’t be able to get everything done (on time or in the right way) and it creates a vicious cycle. If it’s important enough, it almost certainly WILL get done. And most of the time I’ve created more of the event in my mind than it actually will take. I gave the example a few weeks back of this small job I kept putting off for weeks. I knew it wasn’t a big deal but I didn’t want to do it, but the longer I left the task the more and more difficult it was for me to imagine getting it done.
      I did it, it was over quickly…I don’t regret waiting as long as I did, but I DO regret the mental gymnastics I went through. Better to just tell myself that it will get done, it’s okay to put this off etc.

      This self-talk can be easy to rehearse and hard to deliver, though.

  5. I couldn’t love this metaphor more if I tried… I mean, it’s a perfect way to describe everything everyone is handling (or keeping in the air) on a daily basis.
    Although I feel like there might be some glass balls (wrapped in a rubber coating) that might not instantly break when dropped but need to be caught more often than the full-fledged rubber balls, if you know what I mean.

    I am an over-achiever and ideally would like to catch “ALL THE BALLS”, but I am trying to take a step back to really get a good look at which balls are rubber and which balls are glass. As you mentioned, it’s not easy…. but having them all rain on your head one day is not a good alternative either.

    1. Good point about the rubber coating. All glass (and rubber) balls aren’t created equal and there are definitely some rubber balls that start to get more and more fragile the more you drop the ball.
      It feels like there is endless scope for considering this “ball” theory of life!

      And you’re right – it’s not easy. And it’s also constantly changing. The onset of a global pandemic caused a huge shift in what balls we had to juggle and A LOT OF balls were ripped unceremoniously out of our hands.

  6. I think it’s common for women to just get more into our plates overtime and we are not good at reviewing them and drop/delegate them. Once I felt I was doing so much, I wrote down all households tasks and asked hubby to choose as least 1/3. It was a good exercise to actually see all those balls for me and for him. He picked some that he feels comfortable being (like groceries shopping, picking up the girls, fixing car, etc), and I feel relieved and more fair. It’s more mental load than actually doing it.
    I think it’s a good reminder to do this exercise from time to time before getting overwhelmed.

    1. This sounds A LOT like what Tiffany Dufu discusses in her book.
      And you’re right – this assessment of what’s currently on our to-do list is something that has to happen regularly or it’s bound to get all cluttered up (and, naturally, priorities change with natural shifts in our life circumstances).

  7. I served many years on our schools’ PTO groups, and that morphed into a 9-year stint on the high school Prom committee. No regrets, but it was nice when the last child graduated & I could walk away (and leave those “balls” for the next person),

    1. As someone who doesn’t serve on anything like this (currently) – thanks for your hard work because this form of volunteerism DEFINITELY goes unnoticed.
      And, as dedicated as you were, how nice to have a sense of satisfaction (and relief) when you could pass the baton along to someone else.

  8. Oh, such a fascinating topic and one I love to think about/ talk about too!! I love the concept of releasing some the balls, but like San said, man that can be hard!! I fall into the trap of often feeling like, “Well, it’s just easier if I do it myself” sometimes, because delegating, while useful, can end up feeling like yet another thing to do! I know Laura Vanderkam I think recommends handing off “all” things related to an area- like I think she has used the example of “soccer signup”. So if you give that to Dad, he deals with the paperwork, the game schedule, the new shoes, the shin guards, bringing snack. I have never successfully really implemented this…but it sounds nice. Lol!

    With covid, we also cut way back on everything, but things have slowly seeped back in. Overall, I’m okay with it, I think because the boys are older now and other things that used to be more difficult…are now easier! So it doesn’t all feel as unmanageable as when, say, I need to feed them, bathe them, do elaborate bedtime routines, etc. It’s kind of one thing for another. Plus, carpools have literally been a lifesaver for us, compared to pre-covid when we didn’t have some of those “support” systems in place yet. The boys are busy, but many weeknights I never even have to drive anywhere! Because…carpool!! (I took Friday night practice all winter for swim team carpool, which sounds bad, but honestly was worth it to have the weeknights open to just be home/ make dinner/ etc.).

    Definitely I am always a fan of the “balls in the air” analogy and I liked how plainly Cal stated it. For some reason sometimes it helps to hear someone else say something that is so OBVIOUS, but yet we tend to miss it. (Though as we’ve all agreed- can be easier said than done 😉

    1. Your comment on SHU’s blog really got me thinking about this again, so thanks again Kae!
      YES – handing over everything does sound ideal but, in our situation, this isn’t typically viable. Food for thought, though!
      The “easier” if I do it myself trap is all too familiar; sometimes I pass the ball to someone else but then feel like I have to keep reminding them to keep the ball in the air or ask…if they dropped it…where that darn ball has rolled off to. In which case I just opt to add it back into my rotation. Though, to be fair, that’s more on me being too uptight to let things go (since, typically, I’m handing over a rubber ball to begin with).
      Different seasons of life definitely lend themselves to different routines. We’re just now entering a stage where there are no naps, the kids are more independent AND Covid restrictions are easing so there are more options so I suspect we’ll have more extracurricular balls in the air soon, but I know my default is going to be to keep those to a minimum.

  9. This is beautifully written, and also resonated so much: I think you’re right that our culture and maybe our generation specifically so glorify busyness that it can be even harder than it might otherwise be to reconcile ourselves to dropping balls in life. I honestly have trouble identifying, at this point, whether I have so much trouble letting go of things because I genuinely want them in my life and there are just too many cool things to fit into life (possible; there are indeed a lot of great activities and jobs and friendships and things to study out there) or because society has so strongly conditioned us to see dropping a ball, or even gently, intentionally setting it down, as a failure. Actually, this may be one of the reasons I enjoy your blog so much: aside from being really well-written and also delightful, I think it actually shows great evidence of thoughtfulness and wisdom about this ball-juggling situation – of course there’s always more to figure out, but your post about the things you actively choose not to do, for example (from a little while ago I think) was so eye-opening to me!

    1. All of these are such great points. It CAN be hard to determine what undermines our decisions – personal preference or cultural peer pressure (likely a combination of the two?).
      And thanks for the kind words about my writing. Always a creative boost <3

  10. I’ve been really trying to assess my priorities and figure out what can be dropped and what cannot be dropped. I’m about to begin a really fun endeavor with a friend that I’m looking forward to, but it will also seriously limit some of my free time. I know I have a lot more free time than most being single and childless, but it can be hard to fit in all of my hobbies around a busy work schedule, family/friend time, and downtime.

    Great post and lots to think about!

  11. I *love* this concept. Love it. I really appreciated your description of something meaningless blocking out the meaningful in our lives. I need to prioritize those things that give me joy (poetry, reading, connecting with others via blogs [lol]) and remember that the other things? They can wait, just a bit.
    My problem is that I tend to think of all the balls as glass balls, when in reality, they are not.
    No one is going to die if I don’t get through this student’s (not very well-written, sigh) paper today. No one will lose their job if I reply to the email tomorrow instead of at the end of the day. My work pressures are completely self-inflicted, and I need to pay better attention to that.
    One final comment – I am still learning how to keep the personal balls (particularly those related to money and finances) up in the air. It’s not, yet, something that comes naturally. But I know it will come with time. And lots of reminders in the meantime. 🙂

    1. Me too! Everything can feel like a glass ball…
      And too often the things I should prioritize (they’re not glass balls, but they help keep me on my feet) – like rest, exercise, healthy eating, connecting with friends – I end up setting aside to keep those glass balls in the air.
      It’s a work in progress, but baby steps 🙂

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