Sarah was like a lot of other high-performing leaders. She had a lot of balls in the air and she struggled to not drop any. Like a lot of high-performers, she tied her sense of accomplishment and value to doing it all. As she took on more responsibility, this became harder and harder.
Juggling many tasks is a lot like treading water. There is a lot of motion and a lot of energy spent, but not much progress. To avoid dropping anything, we often struggle to make progress on the right things.
Rather than trying not to drop anything, it can help to shift your focus to how to drop the right things. To extend the metaphor of keeping balls in the air: some balls are made of rubber, some are made of glass, and some are made of metal. Knowing how to handle each of these appropriately can make a big difference.
These are items that, if dropped will bounce right back up. They are the most resilient of work that we have to do. They are easy to drop and no harm will come of dropping them. These are often recurring tasks or things that are of lower importance and urgency.
These are the things that you can’t drop. If you do, they will shatter. When they shatter it will create more work picking up the pieces or repairing relationships. These are your important tasks and the ones that others depend on most. Identifying the glass balls so that you can have them as your focus is critical.
These are things that you can drop. They may dent a little, but mostly they will make a lot of noise. It is ok to drop these, but before you do, you should let people know. That way, the loud BANG does not surprise them when they hit the floor. No damage will be done and you can come back to these later. Often, people confuse metal balls with glass balls. They assume that because lots of people will notice if they drop them; we have to keep them in the air. But discerning the difference can make sure that you are focusing your energy in the right places.
When you find yourself overloaded, think about what characteristics the work has. If you drop it will it bounce right back, will it shatter, or will it make a loud noise and have only minimal damage? Based on those properties, you can focus on the tasks that need your attention and less time just trying to keep everything in the air.