It's okay to drop the ball.
No, seriously, it's okay to drop the ball. To set it down and walk away for a minute. To buy time to juggle yet another one thrown your way. To make more time to focus on the other balls suspended in the air.
Developing our ability to juggle "more" is a valuable skill, and arguably one that we should never fully stop investing in. But the skill of "more" gets a disproportionate amount of the conversation and, as a result, too many people find themselves struggling to keep up. What if, instead of living perpetually on the edge of disaster, we could change how we juggle? What if we could be the ones in control of what we drop, and what if we could do that in a way that was beneficial to us and those around us?
What matters just as much as juggling "more" is knowing what, when, and how to drop. The art of dropping deliberately.
This article presents a method for balancing ourselves, our time and our priorities - by challenging ourselves to increase our awareness of what we're juggling, why, and what it really means to drop something. After the framework, there's a metaphor that I hope others will find useful for putting the art of dropping deliberately into daily practice.
Dropping deliberately starts with reflection on three aspects of our commitments:
Awareness: What am I juggling? Why and for whom?
Audience: If I were to drop one of these things, what would happen? Who would be affected?
Anticipation: What would it take to pick the dropped thing back up and into my rotation?
Each of these gives us valuable clues as to what we can safely drop, what we might be able to drop, and what we definitely should not drop. It's all a matter of foam, rubber, and glass.
What am I juggling? Why and for whom?
We're all juggling more than we think we are. Sure, there are the obvious things - the tasks assigned to us at work, the projects we've taken on. But there are also the things that don't seem like juggling. These may be longer term things, like working on developing a new skill, investing in a hobby in the evening. Or they may be personal commitments that require ongoing time and attention. It all must be juggled, until it isn't.
So, what should you do? Take a moment and write down all the things for which you feel responsible, short-term and long-term, personal and professional. Write. Don't limit yourself - just get it out and down on paper. Make sure to include those things that may not be a responsibility, per se, but require your time and emotional energy. Next, write a note next to each item. State why you are doing the thing, and for whom. Be honest with yourself.
If I were to drop one of these things, what would happen? Who would be affected?
Now that you have a list of your commitments - the balls you are juggling. Let's dive a bit into the audience. All performers have an audience, and we are each on a stage of sorts. Take a look at your list and think about the impact of dropping each "ball" on your list. If you were to drop it, what would happen? Would anyone notice? Would a project be delayed? Would someone you care about feel let down? Would... nothing happen?
If, on your list, you wrote down that you held a responsibility or commitment, a ball, for someone specifically, take another moment here. Try to see the situation through that person's eyes. What would happen? How would this person (and others around) be affected if you let this ball drop for a moment? Longer?
What would it take to pick the dropped thing back up and into my rotation?
Dropping deliberately also means thinking about how you will pick things back up when the moment has passed. The best time to do this thinking is, arguably, before you drop. By now, through the list you've made, you have a deeper understanding of all the balls that you are juggling, why, and for whom. Now, before you make the actual decision to drop, let's take a moment to plan what comes after the drop.
Some things can easily be picked up and resumed with little lag. I can set down a good book (okay, I just can't, but let's assume I can) for a couple nights to get some other, more pressing things done. I can come back, pick it up, and start on the next chapter without any issue. If I let my Spanish lessons drop for more than a few days, I need to back up a few episodes to get my momentum going again. If I were to let a client deliverable drop for a week, not only might I lose momentum, but I might miss the deadline entirely. Oof.
Take some time before dropping to think about what it will take to bring the ball back into your juggling rhythm.
Metaphor: Foam, Rubber, and Glass
Dropping deliberately is a skill you practice. You may not have the time to frequently go through the entire exercise above. That's okay. Try it at least once to get a feel for what works for you. As you practice the method, you'll become more comfortable thinking about what you can safely drop, what you might be able to drop, and what you definitely should not drop.
As a metaphor - and arguably a fair shortcut for dropping deliberately - consider three types of balls as representing the things that we juggle: foam, rubber, and glass.
Foam balls are lightweight, soft. They don't weigh much at all really, but what's more important is what happens when you drop one. A foam ball falls to the ground, quietly, and sits patiently until you're ready to pick it back up - odds are no one will notice that you dropped it if you don't call attention to it yourself. Foam balls take little effort to pick back up and are unlikely to hurt anyone when dropped.
Rubber balls are durable and flexible but can get out of control if left unattended. Tasks are rubber balls when we can let them go for a couple days, maybe longer (depending on the task), without significant effects. But be cautious! If you drop a rubber ball, you need to catch it on the bounce so it doesn’t go astray.
Glass balls are delicate, fragile, complex tasks. They may have a very high value (personal or professional). They may be just for you, have time sensitivity, or require a delicate touch. You can’t pick glass balls back up. They break when dropped, and someone may get hurt on the pieces. Odds are you don't want to drop these.
Go Drop! Deliberately.
Once you understand what it is that you’re juggling, and you’ve given it a good, honest assessment, you’re now in a much better place to know what you can drop – and what you can’t – when the inevitable next ball is tossed your way.
Notice that this method doesn’t say a thing about juggling what we like. Lining up what we’re juggling so that we spend more time in contact with our purpose as humans is a whole different conversation for a different day. But, until then, drop deliberately!