Too Many Balls in the Air? Here’s How to Prioritize

September 13, 2021

Ever feel like you’re a juggler with entirely too many balls in the air at once? Here’s a simple question to ask yourself to help you prioritize quickly and efficiently.

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Ever feel like you’re already behind the moment you wake up?

This was a constant feeling in my life for years. My eyes would open and I would already feel anxious thinking about getting everyone fed and out the door for school, while somehow managing to make it to my desk in time for work responsibilities … not to mention the house and laundry and all the other to-dos piling up.

For so long, it felt like a losing battle I couldn’t win.

I even found myself Googling, “How to balance it all” or “How to be better organized,” and the advice I found usually went something like this: Create a morning ritual; Say no to all the things that aren’t essential; Create a plan and stick to it.

But I’d wake up to kids begging for breakfast, a kitchen that needed to be cleaned, laundry that needed to be done, lunches that needed to be packed, and a morning cup of tea that I wanted to be make and enjoy, even if it wasn’t in silence.

And there didn’t seem to be anything that I could say no to.

Everything seemed essential so my plan was to balance it all at once: Pouring my tea to steep, while I threw in a load of laundry, before bouncing back into the kitchen to make breakfasts and lunches.

And some mornings, it even seemed to work … until …

One morning when my routine didn’t account for the unexpected morning breakdown.

It was just like any other weekday morning, except on this particular day, my oldest child wasn’t excited that it was a school morning. He’s ambivalent about school at best, completely against it at worst. 

And this particular morning, he was 100% against it.

He didn’t want to go to school, and he wanted me to know it. And most importantly, he wanted me to sit on the couch and read books and be right there next to him as he worked through all the feelings.

But I was already maxed out on essentials, so this one final thing tipped me right over the edge. If I had a dial that measured how balanced I felt, it would be all the way to one side and it would read: “Off balance.”

I tried to keep going, certain that getting more things done would smooth it all out. So, I attempted to comfort him while darting around the house, doing all the things. I tried to acknowledge how he felt while making sandwiches.

But it wasn’t working. 

I felt like a juggler with too many balls in the air.

And more I tried to juggle, the tenser I got.

And the more I tried to juggle, the more upset he got.

Until it was obvious to me and everyone else: The juggling act was no longer working.

I’m sure a lot of us can relate: As a parent, a professional, a friend, a community member, a spouse, or all of those things at one … there’s so much calling for our attention, often at the same time. 

And just like the juggler, we quickly find that we have way too many balls in the air and there’s no way to make them all work.

Quite honestly, this feeling of “too many balls, not enough hands” was what first led me to coaching, and I’ve since spent a lot of time reading, writing, reflecting, and learning about this problem and different ways of handling it.

For a while, I was certain the answer was balance — that if I somehow learned how to prioritize and manage my time, I’d figure out the magic routine that would help me seamlessly manage and juggle it all. 

Even my research seemed to suggest that I was struggling because I hadn’t figured out the right order, or the right movement, or the right timing, but there was a promise of balance and rhythm if I just kept trying harder. 

Well, I don’t know about you, but that has yet to work for me. 

So I’ve been on the search for a new way of thinking about prioritizing and balancing … and then one day, I remembered a beautiful idea I heard many years ago. 

And it went something like this …

What if the question isn’t about how to juggle all of the balls at once, but instead, determining which balls are glass?

The truth is, we all likely have too many balls in the air. And it’s also likely that many of us take great pride in this truth. 

We’ve been taught that the more balls we have in the air, and the more effortlessly we seem to juggle them, the more worthy we are. And on top of it, we shy away from rest because we’ve been taught that the act of admitting we can juggle it all and putting something down equals failure or a lack of commitment. 

But in an attempt to keep up, we’re burning ourselves out. Because not even a juggler can keep juggling forever. 

So what if we finally admitted that we weren’t meant to juggle everything at once? What if the question is really about deciding what’s worth holding on to? 

What if the secret is that we need to determine is which balls are glass and which ones are plastic?

We can think of the glass balls as the things in life that truly matter at the end of the day. They’re the ones that in 5, 10, 20 years, we’re going to look back on fondly and be grateful we spent time doing them (or regretful that we didn’t). They’re often time-sensitive, something that is happening in the present moment, but they’re the life-giving, soul-filling gifts that we feel honored to hold (even when they’re challenging and heavy). 

Needing to sit with my son and help him feel seen and understood that Monday morning … that was a glass ball. 

And here’s the kicker: When we drop a glass ball, they get damaged. That’s not to say they can’t ever be repaired, but it takes time and energy and dedication to mend a broken piece of glass back together. 

Plastic balls on the other hand … those are bound up in shoulds and have tos. They’re not time-sensitive, but often feel urgent. 

Responding to that message, emptying the dishwasher, doing loads of laundry—all plastic balls that need to be attended to, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s right now or later in the day, or even tomorrow.

When you drop a plastic ball? There’s no real damage (except for maybe a bruised ego). But when you think about it in the grand scheme of things, it’s not really a big deal. 

So lately, whenever I feel overwhelmed or like too many things are calling for my attention, I take a big breath and I ask myself: Which of these are glass, and which ones are plastic?

It’s a new way of looking at productivity and time-management entirely and the answer to your question comes instantly. Because not everything holds the same weight. Not all balls are broken when they’re dropped. And you get to determine which ones you want to hold onto at any given moment.

When you ask yourself that question, you can know, in that moment, where your heart and your attention should be going. 

Hold onto the glass balls, and set down everything else. 

Place all of the plastic balls in a nice wicker basket, knowing you can pick them back up again later (or not, if you determine it shouldn’t be something you’re holding at all). 

But you can rest easy knowing that you don’t have to hold them all at once. And you truly don’t have to juggle everything. 

So, if you’ve been trying to finish a project that’s really close to your heart, but your text alerts keep going off and you remember that the kitchen is a bit messy and you feel pulled in a 1,000 different directions, ask yourself, “What’s the glass ball in this situation?

Ask yourself: What do I want to choose to hold intentionally, at this moment, because I know 5, 10, 15, years from now, I’m going to be really glad I protected it?

Everything else? Set it down and pick them up later, when you have more time and space. 

Because you don’t have to be the juggler. And even jugglers need breaks.

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  1. Orlane says:

    I love this article, this is really helpful. I will definitely you use this when I feel overwhelmed by everything I have to. Thank you so much !

    • Sarah Featherstone says:

      I’m so glad to hear! It’s been a game changer for me. I hope you find it to be helpful in practice, too!

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