Let me paint a picture for you.
Imagine, if you will, a rack filled with balls. Each ball has written on it a task that you may undertake in your daily life.
Examples of such tasks are: your job, maintaining a healthly relationship with your spouse, looking after your kids, keeping fit, eating properly, cleaning the house, walking the dog, spending time with friends, visiting relatives, learning a new language, studying at uni, learning a skill, helping the needy, etc. Anything at all.
Hobbies and other personal projects you undertake also get their own ball.
Now, in general, most people are able to juggle several balls in their lives (or at least give the illusion of juggling them … you don’t often do more than one of these things at once, rather you tend to swap between tasks). Working your job, while maintaining a healthy lifestyle and looking after your kids … that’s a pretty fulfilling life for most people.
Some balls are bigger and heavier than others – and take more effort to “keep in the air”. A stressful job, a sick child, a personal injury. These types of things make it more difficult to keep as many balls in the air – to keep on top of everything that needs to be done in order to be happy and healthy.
However, there are some people around who, for any number of reasons, just have a tendency to want to pick up more balls from the rack and start to juggle them as part of their normal life too.
The trick is, the more balls you try and juggle, the more difficult it becomes, and the more likely you are to start dropping them. Dropping a ball can be a bad thing. Especially if it is one of the “important” balls, such as looking after yourself, keeping fit, maintaining a healthly lifestyle, and such.
It’s usually not the end of the world if you drop a ball – everyone has weak moments, or periods of difficulty in their lives, where they just can’t meet their usual standards. This is especially true if one of the balls suddenly grows larger (new job, illness in the family) – it may cause some of the other balls to get dropped. Usually, the challenges are overcome, you learn to handle the larger ball (or it shrinks and becomes easier to handle), and you possibly even pick up the dropped balls and start juggling them again.
I have been very blessed in my life in that I have not had many of these “large” balls to deal with. However, what I do struggle with, is picking up too many balls and trying to juggle them all.
This is what has happened to me over the last 6 – 12 months.
I have a busy job that sees me travelling a lot, but it also gives me flexibility – such as the ability to work from home (when I’m not on the road). So I can’t complain about my job – yes, it does take a lot of time, but I also get back a lot of time in not having to commute, or work from an office. I largely get to set my own hours … if I need to get something personal done first thing in the morning, I know I have the flexibility to catch up on that lost time later in the day. It works well, and I enjoy working in this environment. Work really isn’t the challenge for me – although I do know plenty of people who find that they devote so much of their time to their careers, that they never have any time to even pick up another ball from the rack, let alone trying to juggle it too.
I’ve always had a lot of personal projects I undertake. There’s always interesting things to do, and stuff that I enjoy learning and doing. Computers have always been my passion, ever since I was a kid – I work for a large software company, but that’s not enough – there’s always more fun stuff to do … skills to learn, things to build.
What’s more, I decided to undertake some extra studies at the beginning of last year – I started a Masters of Education (Adult Education) by distance learning. That’s another pretty big ball to keep in the air !
So, my personal weakness over the last 6 – 12 months has been picking up too many of these “personal project” balls and trying to keep them all in the air, along with all the other stuff that is arguably more important in life.
And recently, I’ve started to drop some of the balls.
Some of them really aren’t that important – and there’s no great loss in leaving them on the ground. But others are much more important – especially those which involve personal commitments I have made to other people, and those that involve my personal health and wellbeing, or that of my family.
What’s worse – it was depressing me.
Why couldn’t I keep all these balls in the air like I wanted? Was I not good enough? Was I losing my skills?
What if I just stayed up later each night? What if I slept less? All I really needed was more time each day, and surely I could get those balls back in the air like I wanted?
It took a while – but I did finally learn something. There really is a limit to the number of balls I could personally keep in the air. And when I started to think about it – I realised that the number was actually quite a few less than I had been attempting!
Of course, this depressed me even more. I was despondent. I was tired, and I was burned out. I dropped just about all the balls I had been juggling, and I couldn’t bring myself to pick them up again.
It took me a while to get out of this funk, possibly I just needed some time out, to take a break, and to come to terms with what I was realising.
Funnily enough, one of the catalysts was talking to a friend (who I hadn’t been paying anywhere near enough attention to – another dropped ball!), and discovered that he had experienced something quite similar himself. Even if the circumstances were different, the feelings and the outcomes were very similar – depression, burn-out, too many dropped balls, and a real difficulty in starting to pick them up again.
Knowing it wasn’t just me – I wasn’t alone, actually helped me see the next step that needed to be taken. I needed to simplify my life – to get back to what was important to me.
So finally, I got to the point of being able to make some decisions.
I quickly identified some of the things that had been causing me the most stress in my life – and interestingly, when I really searched for my reasons for picking up these balls – I realised that they really weren’t that important to me after all. Sure, they were all things I would love to do – and I think they will be valuable to me at some point in my life. But they didn’t need to be done right now – I’m still young, I have time on my side, and I really can afford to put some of these projects on hold and pick them up later – when I really do have time, or a need, for them.
The first thing to go was my uni studies. I didn’t pull out altogether, but I cancelled my studies for this year, and I applied for a leave of absense from the uni for up to 2 years. I figure I can reassess my life then and decide whether I have the time and the need to continue at that point.
The next thing to go was one of the new blogs I had recently started – IBM Eye, which I was writing for b5media. While I initially enjoyed writing it, the time commitment involved in writing regularly for a blog network was not something that I could realistically manage right now. I was letting them down, and I was letting myself down. So I decided to resign from writing that blog, and hand the reins over to someone new.
I then started reviewing some of my other personal projects and I identified which ones were taking up too much of my time – and which ones were the least important to me. I’m in the process now of either shutting down, or scaling back my commitments to those projects.
The key I have found, is focus.
It’s kind of one of those “duh” things. Of course it’s about focus. How can I expect to do a good job with the things that are important to me, if I can’t focus on those things because of all the other balls I have to go running after?
Today, I’m not completely back where I want to be – there’s still some stuff that needs cleaning up. But I now feel as though I’m heading in the right direction, and I have a plan I’m working to.
One of the dropped balls that I do want to pick up and start juggling again is this blog. It’s not really that important in the grand scheme of things, and only my family and a few friends ever read it. But it is something I do enjoy, and I occasionally find it therapeutic to write my thoughts down somewhere.
So, thanks for listening, I feel this therapy session has gone well.
… oh, and I apologise to anyone who thought this post might be about wearing boxer shorts :P
I Like your analogy with the balls with different weights indicating the importance (or weightiness) of the task/obligation.
My concept has been attentions units. You have so many attention units and when you run out there are no more to be had they can only be recycled. These units had an implied weight but not imperical like the ball analogy.
Just on thought on holidays that occurred to me recently. Basically came about thinking why holidays are in the main relaxing to you seeing that most holidays are so busy that you go home to relax.
The bleeding obvious using your juggeling ball analogy was that when you go on holidays you drop all your balls and everybody expects and excepts that you drop all the balls. So as a result you are completely relaxed with no ongoing obligations during the holiday.
Unfortunately as a lead up to the holiday you become frantic landing all those balls so they don’t fall in your absence.
Richard Cockrum says
Your dad referred me to this post in a comment he left on my site. Your article is excellent. I love how you worked with the keeping the balls in the air analogy. You’re right. We can only do so much, and have learn to focus on what is important to us. This is hard.
An eloquent elucidation of the malaise of modern man.
The tyranny of choice and opportunity eh?
I think it takes real courage and insight to not only recognise there are some balls you just can’t keep airborne, but to then choose let them hit the ground.
Well done Sim’!
Good stuff Sim, interesting read. Certainly helps put things in perspective and helps make me realise i’m not the only one constantly biting off more than i can chew !!
I only stumbled upon this through a link off Duncan’s blog – keep up the great work !!
The thing that struck a chord with me was that word ‘Simplify”
I made this my mission starting last year, to aim for a simpler life and to leave a minimal footprint behind you.
It works for me, but now all I see are lots of people who would really benefit by simplifying their lives.
Keep it simple and avoid all stress.
It bewilders me the way some people live their lives. Doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. No aim, no plan, and no result.
Simon, this would make a brilliant thread to post on SS
(I love this philosophical change of tack. It all makes good sense and you are writing what I have often thought to be so.)
I have complained bitterly in the last 10-15 years that we (Simon’s mum and dad) had more lifestyle when the children were still at school. This tends to be the opposite of what is said today…can’t do this because of the kids…
We did things together that Simon and his sister still remember and talk about.
It is time to ditch a few of the juggled balls and reclaim what I like to call lifestyle.
Reclaim family life by doing simple things… take a walk, go for a picnic somewhere close by…have the picnic in the front yard if time and place are truly impossible, play ludo with the littlies, go for a walk around the block, kick a football around, read a book aloud to ALL the family as a serial.
None of these things takes a huge amount of time. It is being brave enough to let go of a few of those balls for a while. Most of them won’t bounce. Those that do maybe need to be examined and a decision made as to whether they are worth gathering up again.
No is only a small word, but it seems to be the hardest word of all to say in these circumstances. It can also be the most important word to learn for the sake of happiness, health and well being for any person.
“Learning to say … I’ll do this thing I’m doing, I’ll do it well, I’ll finish it, and then move on. This is hard.”
Ashleigh, you are exactly right, and this is one of the things that has been bugging me with my ball juggling … I tend to get so distracted with the act of juggling, that I actually become far less productive – I don’t do anything well, and it’s difficult to put in that last bit of effort to just get the thing done !!! And it is hard to do.
I am shocking at multitasking, or working on many small tasks. I work at my best when I can immerse myself in a task – give my whole being over to it for an extended period – get into “the zone”. Flitting from task to task and managing lots of little things to do (like answering the phone and making calls – doing emails etc) … are things I really don’t do well – I find they take me so long to do, and I never really achieve much.
This is one of the satisfying things I find with building websites – I immerse myself in the project for a couple of hours, and (assuming I’m making progress !), come away feeling immensely satisfied.
I suspect it’s a similar thing to what Dunc feels when working on his truck ;-)
Oh all so true.
Some of us have bosses who want us to constantly pick up another ball as well – you know the sort… Just go do this task, it won’t take long. Before you know there are 27 small tasks that won’t take long, but it takes 3 weeks to do them all, and THEN you get hammered for not doing the big job you were supposed to be putting all your effort into!
I’m trying hard to learn to say “no”. This to work colleagues, friends, family, whatever. All those little demands to do a bit here, a bit there. Can’t you just slip this in to the XXX? But a customer wants it now!! But I promised it to XXX (you didn’t ask me before promising though did you?).
We all need to ask: will the world end if I don’t do this? (at least in various metaphorical terms). Usually the answer is no, in which case – defer it, preferably forever!
Multi-tasking is a terribly unproductive use of human time – we don’t do it very well. Even those few who like to think they can manage it are usually kidding themselves.
Learning to say… I’ll do this thing I’m doing, I’ll do it well, I’ll finish it, and then move on. This is hard. This is also not quite what you wrote about (more short term rather than long term), but its all part of the same big picture.
In common with Duncan, I think there is a big pressure in our society to do STUFF… to achieve… be noticed… be the perfect devoted husband, perfect father (spending lots of time with the kids), be the perfect employee, have all the goodies, etc etc etc. It is really hard to learn to say “no”, to stop, and to smell the roses.
Humans need time to recover (the Veg-out time), time to think, and time to do a few tasks well and get the satisfaction from it. The common thread here is time…
Speading yourself too thin kills time!
Duncan Margetts says
Damn.. what a fine fine post.. I love your ball analogy and can really identify with things you’ve said. I’m guilty of picking up balls I cant possibly juggle as well. I’m learning to very very picky of what balls to pick up now.
I know I’m your mum and I know this is the equivalent of taking the forgotten lunch to high school. Many people would do well to read and digest what you have written. You have obviously had to work through a lot to come to the decisions that you have made. Maybe others who read the blog will be helped in some way to get themselves out of a similar hole.