If you’ve ever complained about being overwhelmed, overbusy, or burned out, some helpful (?) person has undoubtedly advised, “You need to drop some of those balls you’re juggling!”
These days, with so much about burnout in the news – and, more to the point, in our organizations and lives – “Drop those balls!” must be ringing down office corridors and from Zoom speakers.
But which ball? If we drop the wrong ball, will we get in trouble? Better, perhaps, to just keep juggling as fast as we can!
Okay, it’s all very well – and not very interesting – to say “prioritization is key,” except, well, it really is.
Managers and leaders at all levels need to help their people learn how to prioritize and they need to offer guidance – the individual can’t always know what’s most important.
And even in our personal lives, it’s not always clear, is it?
Glass breaks; plastic bounces
I recently came across a quote, attributed to the (insanely prolific) author Nora Roberts. It goes sort of like this (paraphrasing):
“You have to know which balls are glass and which are plastic. Prioritize catching the glass balls.”
My head exploded. 🤯
This is a direct and powerful way to understand priorities. Will something shatter if you drop that ball? Catch it. Will it bounce? Go ahead and drop it – for now, and maybe forever.
A personal example
This past weekend, I prioritized making brownies over doing the ironing. The ironing is stacking up, but it’s not a glass-ball-sized stack (yet). Dropping the brownie ball? That would have had me kicking myself all week. Obviously, the brownies were a glass ball. (You’re welcome for the image of a brownie ball splatting on the kitchen floor. Oops.)
In a work setting, team members need help understanding the different ball types. And managers need even more help, because they’re responsible for catching their own balls as well as those of their team – and often those of their managers.
Factors to consider
There are multiple factors at play in any prioritization effort.
- What’s the bigger picture? If I decide a ball is plastic and I drop it, will it roll off and impact someone else’s efforts – perhaps causing their glass ball to break? This is why everyone at all levels needs to have the context within which everything they’re doing has to fit. Without that understanding, you’re likely to have broken glass. With that understanding, everyone can do a better job and create better results.
What’s urgent versus what’s important? The urgency-versus-importance question is close to being a cliché, but it’s a very real and – dare I say it – important question. If you’re not into juggling or ball-playing, the Eisenhower Matrix (so called because it was supposedly created by Dwight D. Eisenhower) might be more useful for you.
Just remember that the visceral sense of a glass ball hitting the floor is a whole lot different from contemplating a rather boring four-box model!
- Where are you in all this? For those of us who are people-pleasers, it’s all too easy to decide that other people’s needs, wants, and wishes are the glass balls, and ours are plastic, ready to be dropped over and over again until they disappear under the bed. My brownies-versus-ironing dilemma is a prime example of this, but it also arises within the context of work. Are you accepting balls for reasons other than your career advancement – or because you think they might be career-advancing? Are they balls you should be juggling at all, never mind balls you’re considering to be glass, when they’re really only plastic? It’s all too easy to get caught up in what’s called “non-promotable work,” or in taking on extra projects when we’re already having a hard time keeping everything safely in the air. Be careful which balls you allow into your juggling rhythm!
The antidote to hustle culture?
If you’ve read my articles or LinkedIn posts for any length of time, you know that I’m against – to say the least – so-called hustle culture.
I learned long ago, in one of my very early corporate jobs, that working overtime day after day, week after week, trying to keep all the balls in the air, just led to a lot of work that had to be fixed – un-done and re-done – because I’d been too blurry with exhaustion to do it right the first time.
Let’s stop overloading our jugglers – um, excuse me, managers and their people – and start teaching prioritization and sanity.
Prioritization is a crucial skill for managers and leaders, and it’s typically far from intuitive. And it is, of course, included in the programs I offer for individual managers as well as cohorts. Contact me if you’d like to learn more!