Juggling balls

Columnist Cameryn Schafer discusses the importance of defining priorities, with a twist on the old metaphor of juggling.

This column is a part of a series called “I’m hyperfocusing on...”.

I joined the Iowa State Juggling Club the week after homecoming of my freshman year. When I joined, I knew nothing about juggling. Now, I can proudly say I’ve learned how to juggle three balls. I’ve also learned a valuable metaphor for life, which has proven to be incredibly helpful through my six semesters of college.

If you try to juggle more balls than you can manage, all the balls fall.

Now, I’m not talking about the brightly colored round things performers throw up into the sky with grace. I’m referring to the friends in our lives, the jobs we work, the classes we take and any other aspect of our lives that require our energy. Every one of us is always juggling.

As my partner has just made clear to me, this is an analogy that many are familiar with, but I’d like to go a step further. Let’s say the balls are made of a few different materials. The balls could be made of glass, rubber or filled with sand. Sometimes, the best way to keep balls in the air is to evaluate the materials of each.

We’ve got the glass balls: high-priority responsibilities. If I were to drop one of my glass balls, it would shatter, so my focus needs to be on keeping those balls in the air. For me, glass balls are my job and my animals. I need to go to work to earn income. My animals rely on me to provide them with everything they need to survive, and I can’t skip out on that. Some of my classes are glass balls, too. I’m currently taking a full semester of summer classes. One of these classes is the first of a cohort, meaning if I don’t pass, I’ll have to add a year to my degree program in order to graduate.

Rubber balls bounce. These are the low-priority responsibilities. My rubber balls are my social life and writing for the Iowa State Daily. If I have a particularly overwhelming week, I know that I can reach out to Ashley, my editor, to let her know that I need to take a week off of writing. Then, when I’m caught back up, I can pick that ball back up and continue juggling it as though I never dropped it. After all, it did bounce back up to me. I can trust my partner, friends and family to continue to care about me if I need to take some time to focus on my glass balls. Maybe it’s an exam week, work has been crazy or I just need a mental health break. The people that care about me will understand that sometimes, I have things to focus on for a bit, and I extend the same courtesy to each of them.

Juggling glass

By making high-priority commitments out of glass, the need to keep them in the air is emphasized and easy to understand. Other things that are juggled in our lives can be rubber or sand-filled balls. Rubber balls will bounce back up so life can continue on with them, while sand balls stay on the ground for another time, like a later semester.

Finally, we have sand balls. When a sand ball gets dropped, it stays exactly where it landed. No bouncing, no rolling and definitely no shattering. I can count on the sand balls to not go anywhere. This makes sand balls great for dropping long term. Anything that is overwhelming is a sand ball. I was offered a job teaching swim lessons at the local swimming pool like I used to do in high school, but with all the other balls I have, that one had to be a sand ball. I’ll consider teaching swim lessons later on when I have fewer balls to juggle, and until then, it’ll stay by my feet.

Last week, I had 14 assignments to do in one night after working late (procrastination, a big weakness of mine). There was no way that all of those balls could be glass. I looked at the forgiveness that each professor extended for late assignments, and then I looked at how impactful each assignment was to the course grade. I ended up finishing about nine of the assignments by midnight. I started with the glass balls, the ones that had no forgiveness and the most impact on my course grade, and after finishing those, I could move on to my rubber balls. I didn’t finish all of the assignments by midnight, but I stayed up continuing to work on the rest of my rubber ball assignments and finished all of them within the forgiveness window so that I still got full credit. This is a perfect example of how to use a bounce.

The most important thing to remember is that the materials of your balls can change. Sometimes we have to reevaluate the materials of the balls. I’ve recently realized that one of my classes, the lab I’m in, is too much work to keep up. I tried keeping it in the air with the glass balls, but I couldn’t. When I reevaluated, I realized that I couldn't make it a rubber ball because of the requirements to pass. It has to be a sand ball for now. This isn’t always an easy conclusion to come to. But between work, animals, a class that has two weeks left, either of the two classes that throw off my graduation date and the one-credit lab, I knew what I had to do. So I emailed my adviser, and I’m dropping the lab.

I used to think there was a lot of shame in having sand balls. I remember my freshman spring semester, when one of my friends dropped a lab after a couple weeks. At the time, she seemed a little sheepish about the drop, but after just a couple weeks, she was so happy. She was the one to show me that granting yourself grace and choosing to work within your capacity allows you to be more successful than stretching yourself too thin. Look at the balls you’re juggling, focus on the glass ones and allow yourself to drop the sand balls. You’ll find it’s easier to juggle when you can handle the amount of balls in the air.

cameryn schafer profile

Cameryn Schafer is a senior majoring in dietetics and animal ecology pre-vet with a minor in classical studies.

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