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Effective Time Management: Juggling Glass and Rubber Balls

April 25, 2021 | by Dr. Leslie M. Gutman

How to prioritize what really matters to us and ensure that our time is well-spent.

Working from home, endless Zoom meetings, browsing social media, and binge-watching Netflix. This is how many of us spent a good part of the past year. And some are now wondering: Instead of just spending time, how do I make active and thoughtful choices about managing time to maximize my wellbeing?

One strategy for time management is thinking about our time like balls we juggle. Using this approach, the key to successful juggling is deciding which balls are rubber (and can be dropped) and which are glass (and should remain in our juggling pattern). The metaphor of glass and rubber balls seems to originate from Bryan Dyson, a former CEO of Coca-Cola. He described juggling five balls representing different spheres of his life: work, family, health, friends, and spiritual.

As director of a postgraduate program in behavior change, I prefer to conceptualize the balls we juggle as specific behaviors instead of life spheres. When we want to make a change, evidence suggests that the best place to start is with a well-defined behavior.

Within each of our life spheres, some behaviors are non-negotiable; others are not. Most would agree that our family, overall, is glass ball. Within this sphere, however, reducing the number of our children’s after-school activities might be a rubber ball. Other behaviors in this sphere, like spending time with our partners, reading our children a bedtime story, or calling our parents to check-in, might be glass balls. This metaphor helps us to consider which behaviors are priorities for us and which ones can be dropped and maybe picked up later.

How can you tell the difference between behaviors which are rubber and those which are glass? The following questions might be helpful:

  • What is the long-term impact of this ball? For example, if you drop making a hot breakfast on weekday mornings and instead eat an on-the-go cereal bar or piece of fruit will that be okay in the short term? What about in the long-term?

  • How does this ball help you to juggle other balls in your life? You might not, for example, think of exercising every day as a rubber ball but it may be essential for your mental health and help you to be a calmer and more focused co-worker, spouse, parent, or friend.

  • What would happen if you dropped this ball? Would you be able to pick up this ball at a later point in time or not? You might have some friendships, for example, that you can drop for the time being and pick up later, and others that would not survive being dropped.

  • Should you be juggling this ball at all? Many times, we take on responsibilities that we can easily give to others or even outsource. You might, for example, consider that one of your colleagues can take on a work activity. Or maybe no one should be juggling this ball and it can be dropped.

  • Are there any balls you have dropped unintentionally? For many of us, a healthy self-care routine is the first thing to be dropped when life gets hectic. Don’t forget to pick up those balls now and then, such as going for a hike or having a massage, especially if they are likely to have a positive impact on you.

Despite our priorities, many of our behaviors are probably rubber. Most we can let drop now and then and they won’t break, even those things that are really important. If we miss a work meeting, eat an unhealthy dinner, or forget to go over the spelling words with our children once in a while; this is okay. Most of the time, what really matters is less about what we engage in and more about how we engage in it. If we scream at our co-worker because we are frustrated that we missed that meeting, criticize our spouse for making us that unhealthy dinner, or shout at our children from not reminding us that they have a spelling test; it’s not okay.

When a Jewish couple is under the chuppah and the groom raises his foot to smash the glass, we are reminded of the destruction of our Holy Temple and the diaspora of the Jewish people. But we are also reminded of the fragility and preciousness of human relationships. The past year has taught us that our relationships with others are the cornerstone our wellbeing. Time management is really about how we live our life, making conscious and deliberate choices to prioritize what really matters to us and ensuring that our time is well-spent.

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