There are times life can feel overwhelming, even for those that consistently appear balanced. Often, it feels like we are juggling far too many priorities all at once: work, family, a social life, personal well-being, external commitments… you name it.
Work-life balance is something most people aspire to create, but is arguably impossible to actually achieve. It is a good thing to aspire to none-the-less, because being out of balance (which is certainly achievable) often is accompanied by personal distress. When we’re able to effectively counterbalance all of our responsibilities with activities that provide renewal, we build resilience against burnout. When we feel like we have a handle on our priorities it gives us time to reflect and enjoy life, which is important to our overall well-being. However, finding balance is not quite as simple as a scale with “work” on one side and “life” on the other.
In life we frequently must handle multiple roles because most of us have varying responsibilities. Therefore, a better metaphor for managing the various aspects of our lives might be juggling priorities, opposed to “balancing” which suggests life is about duality when it is clearly more complex than “work” and “life”.
In his 1996 commencement speech at Georgia Tech, Brian Dyson, at the time CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, warned graduates about the need for work-life balance and used the metaphor that life is like juggling several balls in the air at one time. You get to name the balls (because they are unique to you), maybe they are: family, career, friends, well-being and ethics. Dyson indicated that once you have identified your specific balls, you need to figure out which ones are rubber, and can withstand being dropped, and which ones are glass and will be irreparably harmed if you mishandle them.
It is easy to let the parts of our lives that look like glass balls (but are really rubber balls) dictate how we juggle everything else. The obvious one that is often mistaken for glass is work. The pressures of a career can be overwhelming, and losing a job (and/or your income) might seem like something that could shatter all your other plans. But that’s often just an illusion: you can usually find a new opportunity, even if it is not ideal, if you have taken good care of the other aspects of your life. You can, as they say, bounce back. That is why your job, your career, is generally a rubber ball and you should not forsake other balls (e.g. personal ethics or your family) to solely focus on advancing in this area.
Determining which balls are rubber and which are glass is up to you to decide. You should tread carefully though, because as Dyson points out, dropping a glass ball will have unexpected consequences. Will it just be a bit scuffed? Will it crack? Or, will it shatter completely and forever change your life’s course? You will not know until you drop it, and then there is no going back.
The analogy works on a smaller scale, too. Imagine all of your responsibilities at work as balls that you’re juggling. Which ones can you absolutely not afford to drop? Which ones will be fine if you let them go and let them bounce for a little bit? What is the one thing that will contribute the most to your success?
In short, do not feel bad dropping a few things to focus on the things that are important. However, do determine which areas in your life you need to protect. We are often shortsighted about the important because we are blinded by the urgent. Make sure you take time to reflect on what deserves your attention. Time is finite so the only way to move towards the ideal of balance is prioritizing what is truly important.