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?