By Marissa Loper
Lately when I check in on my friends, teammates and clients, and we talk about how we’re really doing, I’ve picked up on a common theme.
Right now many of us are utterly, completely overwhelmed.
Because sometimes life can feel altogether too much, can’t it?
Even if you’re not feeling that way today, I bet you’ve experienced those days … when the number of items on your to-do list adds up so fast it makes your head spin. Sometimes you can feel so swamped that you’re not sure how to even start what needs to be done. You can’t figure up from down.
My mother is no stranger to this feeling. She brought four children into this world and managed to keep us alive AND help us become (somewhat) respectable adults. And now she’s the beloved “Mimi” to eight grandchildren.
Throughout my life I’ve had a front-row seat in watching her juggle marriage and parenthood and careers. To the outside world, I’m sure it looked effortless.
But I know better.
All of these responsibilities require a tremendous amount of effort.
Can you really have it all?
My parents were fantastic cheerleaders for their children. We knew how much they loved us, and that kind of security is a rare blessing in this crazy world.
Mom and Dad applauded my talents and encouraged me, always. Even when I was a very young girl, they would tell me I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be. And I believed them because they believed in me.
Mama taught me that it was possible to “have it all”: a strong marriage, a house full of children and an impactful career.
But she also told me I would have to juggle. A lot.
And she warned me that it’s simply impossible to keep all of the proverbial balls in the air all the time.
Sometimes you have to let a ball or two drop.
My mama has laid a boatload of wisdom on me over the years. But the analogy she gave me years ago to help me think through my priorities is the one I’m leaning on the most these days.
It’s the story of the rubber and glass balls.
“Reesie-Mae,” she explained when I was a newlywed just entering my professional career, “feeling overwhelmed is normal. You’re going to feel that way a lot because you’ve chosen a very full life with a lot of responsibilities on your plate.”
Mama explained that managing all of those tasks is like juggling. As humans we try very hard to keep all balls in the air and to not let any of them drop. But sometimes that goal isn’t possible.
Sometimes you have to let a few fall.
Can we control which balls we drop?
Mama went on to clarify that if we don’t decide ourselves which balls to drop, all of the balls are likely to come crashing down. And then you have a gigantic mess to clean up.
So how do you decide which ones to drop?
When everything in your life seems critical, this question can be hard to answer.
So Mama gave me a stunningly easy mental exercise to help me sort through my responsibilities.
First, make a mental list of all the balls you have in the air right now.
Then pretend that each ball falls to the ground.
Does it bounce? If so, it’s a rubber ball.
If not, it’s a glass ball.
It’s all about the bounce.
Here are a few examples of rubber balls: making a home-cooked meal, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, scheduling a night out with friends, tackling yard work, finishing a book, painting the guest bedroom, getting a haircut, or cleaning out your email inbox. Sure, you want to do those things. But if you wait a week to do the laundry, it will be okay. If you don’t weed your flower beds for a month, the world won’t stop spinning. These are rubber balls.
Glass balls, on the other hand, shatter when dropped.
Your glass balls might include taking care of your health, focusing on your relationship with your spouse, spending quality time with your children, or checking on a friend in need. These responsibilities are your most important and your most fragile. You absolutely cannot let these balls drop.
It sounds simple, right?
Its simplicity is what makes this exercise so helpful. In the midst of feeling completely overwhelmed, you really can sort your responsibilities into the glass or rubber category.
And then you can look at the items that bounce and decide which of those you are willing to drop for now and pick back up later.
What does it like look like when you drop rubber balls?
The answer to that question is, in my experience, messy.
My home is quite often a wreck. Please do not open my office closet. My kitchen countertops are still white Formica. I haven’t finished writing thank-you notes to the wonderful people who’ve reached out over the last two months since my father passed away from cancer. Many nights I use pre-prepped ingredients and an air fryer to get dinner on the table quickly.
And guess what? That’s okay. Those are all rubber balls.
I will eventually pick them back up. Case in point: Yesterday I cleaned out my laundry room. I mean really cleaned it out. Clearly I deserve a medal. Plus I read four chapters in a business book I’ve been dying to finish but have already renewed twice at the library. I shoot for progress, people. Not perfection.
Which balls have I kept in the air? The glass ones.
With a lot of help and support from my husband and my colleagues, I was able to frequently travel to Alabama to be with my family during the last months of my father’s life. I will always treasure that special time I had with him. By the grace of God, my amazing team and I have managed to keep Thinkwell afloat during the pandemic. A couple of weeks ago my husband and I both carved out some time to take our children on a vacation so we could ignore the outside world and focus only on our little family. And here’s a glass ball I haven’t historically kept up in the air but I am focusing on right now: I’m cycling three or four times per week to make sure grief and stress don’t get the best of me.
So, you might say I’ve been doing a lot of sorting through glass and rubber these days.
It’s an often messy but mostly beautiful and meaningful exercise.
And I have my mama to thank for helping me remember the things that are the very most important.
So, thank you, Mama. I am so grateful for you—for the wisdom you’ve offered me and the example you’ve set for me. I know you’re doing a whole lot of sorting through glass and rubber yourself right now. And I am here to tell you that you’re doing a fantastic job of it. Daddy would be so proud of you. And I am so very proud of you.
Juggle on, my friends.
To those of you out there who are juggling the stress of everyday life coupled with all of the unknowns that 2020 has flung at you, I hope my mother’s wisdom can help you, too.
May your hearts and your laundry bins stay full, my friends.
When life feels too much, focus on the glass balls. We can tackle the rubber ones later.