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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

How to Determine if the Balls You’re Juggling are Rubber or Glass


In my work as a coach and speaker to corporate leaders, I hear a lot of stories about how many balls people are trying to juggle at once. There are at least three big factors driving these stories. First, most leaders in most organizations are expected to continuously do more with less. Second is the ability to do practically anything from your smartphone that you could do at your desk. Third, is that, unless you set and enforce some boundaries, that smartphone can make you instantly available to anyone who has your email address or phone number.

Those conditions can make juggling all the balls a pressure-filled challenge. How do you keep all the balls in the air without dropping something important or driving your health and well-being off a cliff?

For years, I’ve been talking with my clients about the importance of understanding the difference between when something needs to be perfect and when good enough is good enough. They usually get the distinction between perfect and good enough, but often have a hard time determining when it needs to be one instead of the other.

Lately, I’ve started offering a different way to think about the juggling challenge. Somewhere along the way, I’ve heard someone say that you can juggle a lot more balls if you recognize that some balls are made of rubber and others are made of glass. Rubber balls bounce. Glass balls shatter. You can drop the rubber balls and usually recover easily enough. Drop a glass ball and you’re likely done with that one. The visual metaphor of juggling rubber balls and glass balls is easy to grasp. It still raises the issue, though, of how do you tell the difference between the two?

Here’s a checklist of questions that can help:

What’s the long-term impact of this ball? This question gets to the root of how much the ball you’re juggling really matters. Remember, this question applies to all of the balls you’re juggling, not just your work-related balls. For most people, family, health and well-being matter as much or more than work. One way to get a handle on the long-term impact question is to ask another (with a hat tip to Suzy Welch): Will this matter a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, 10 years from now?

Who else cares about this ball? This question can expand your field of vision. You may or may not care that much about the ball but others might. Your partner, your kids, your boss, your team and your customers are all possible answers. You don’t want your decision-making to be driven solely by other people, but you usually need to at least consider them.

What’s the upside of this ball? When you’re juggling a lot of balls, it’s easy to start looking at all of them as equal burdens. That’s usually not the case. One way to differentiate between the ones that are more or less important is to consider the upside. What are the good things that could result from doing a fabulous job with this particular ball? Painting that picture can create some clarity about how to prioritize all the balls you’re juggling.

If I dropped this ball, could I recover? Stop for a moment and think about the setbacks you’ve had in your life that you’ve bounced back from. Some of those setbacks were likely so minor that you forgot about them soon after they happened. Others were bigger deals and took longer to recover from but you did. There may be a few (hopefully, none or very few) that you haven’t yet bounced back from. The point here is that most setbacks are recoverable. Which means, of course, that most balls are rubber. That should help take the pressure off a bit.

Should I even be juggling this ball? It’s possible, indeed it’s likely, that you’re juggling some balls that really aren’t yours to juggle. Step back and ask the question, should I even be juggling this ball? Maybe the answer is you should save it for later. Maybe the answer is someone else should be juggling it. Perhaps the answer is no one should be juggling it. You won’t know unless you stop to ask the question.

So, that’s a checklist for determining whether the balls you’re juggling are rubber or glass but probably not an exhaustive one. What other questions or criteria would you add?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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