Learning to juggle tasks is part of the job for any busy person, but I never expected to actually learn juggling. I did, and it taught me important lessons about how to learn and how to manage stress. It all began with a clown. Well, a part-time clown who was a full-time network technician. I had been assigned as a supervisor for workers whose job was to maintain a large portion of the military’s network in the Pacific. Networks never sleep, so someone was always there and working. That meant I eventually found myself on night shift.
On the Night Shift
It has been said of both baseball and combat, but it is true in network monitoring as well. There are long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I had to give a network status brief every morning but that took an hour out of a ten-hour shift to prepare. There is only so much web surfing and movie watching one can do before going stir crazy.
One night as I sat there, one of the workers, Chuck, took out a set of red and white balls and started juggling them. It was amazing. This was no ordinary cascade. Chuck wove in every trick you can imagine, three in one hand, piston action, balls going everywhere in a pattern I eventually learned was called the Mill’s Mess.
I’d tossed oranges back and forth from hand to hand and called it juggling, but this was insane. Just when I thought I’d seen every trick he had, Chuck pulled out two more balls and suddenly five balls were in perfectly controlled formation in the air. I’d been juggling multiple networks and outages for a couple months but I wanted to learn how to juggle for real.
Teach Me O Wise One
I didn’t want to be a clown (Somewhere out there, someone that knows me is saying, too late!). I just wanted to be able to duplicate the amazing tricks I had seen Chuck do. Four Balls. Five Balls. Clubs. I wanted to get there, but first, three balls. After throwing three balls into the air and watching them hit the ground as I frantically swatted at the air where they were a second ago, I realized it was going to be a bit of a haul.
Chuck took all the balls from me except one. He showed me the type of throw and arc to make one ball follow the pattern and land in my other hand. Then to throw it back. One ball over and over until the arc was perfect and no longer had to look at the catching hand to make the catch. Only when I had that down did Chuck let me add a new ball. There’s something to be said for the method as by the end of the week I was running a passable cascade with nearly no drops.
Step by step I learned to work in tricks. Eventually I was juggling four. I’ve still not gotten to five balls, but I tend towards getting just a little bit better at the average bear at something before I lose interest in it. Four was enough for me, though I periodically throw five in the air just to flail hopelessly at the balls as they make their way to the floor.
Do it Yourself
I’ve always been a bit of a miser, so when it came time to get my own juggling balls I wasn’t about to shell out any money. We’re talking about cloth bags filled with birdseed or crushed walnut shells here, and I did well in Home Economics in school. We’d recently switched uniforms so I had tons of cloth from old Field Uniforms. I found a ball pattern online and bought some ground up walnut shell reptile bedding for a couple dollars.
After a couple false starts I was cranking out my own juggling balls. I bought some fancier material at Walmart and started experimenting with different size. Chuck loved the juggling balls I was making and ordered a matched set of seven. I didn’t charge him anything. After all, he had taught me a new way to entertain myself. I still have the original set I made.
How to Learn
Go grab five oranges, or apples, or tennis balls, or small animals. Wait… don’t use that last one. Throw them all up into the air and try to catch them. You made a mess didn’t you (unless you are inhuman or a juggler, I’m assuming your items are everywhere around you on the floor)? But go back to how Chuck taught me. One ball. One throw. Until perfect. Only then add the second ball.
Whenever I start something new, I invariably go gung ho and try to just dive in. I end up giving up because it is just too hard to throw five balls in the air and start juggling. Start small. Break down what you want to learn into the simplest possible unit. Once you break anything down into its basic elements you’ll find the path to learning it. Want to paint a landscape? Learn to paint a line. Learn to mix color. Learn to make a leaf, a branch, a cloud, a flower. Put them all together and you have a painting.
Juggling for Stress Management
Working in a busy office is a lot like juggling. On a given day, I have several taskers needing attention, meetings that take an hour of my time, products to develop, things to write, classes to give, emails to read and emails to send, requests from my boss or my boss’s boss and sometimes my boss’s boss’s boss. There is never an end to work at the office and it’s all a priority. Or is it?
One of the most important lessons I learned, I learned from Kathy Fox. She told me that being an officer, especially a staff officer was like being a juggler. There are always more balls (tasks) than you have hands (bandwidth). The trick is realizing which of those balls are rubber and which are glass. If you drop a glass ball (a tasking directly from your boss or any other mission-essential task) it will break on impact and is unrecoverable. If you drop a rubber ball (a favor you promised a co-worker or any non-mission essential task, even a mission-essential task that can wait), rubber bounces. You can pick that ball back up and keep going. (My friend Ryan pointed out after reading this that some balls are also wooden in that they require some effort to pick back up and get back in the air, Awesome Point!)
That’s it. The trick to being successful in a busy office is to quickly identify which of your tasks are glass and which are rubber. As you run out of hands, know which balls you can drop and still not shatter anything. Pick up the rubber ones when you can and before they roll to far, but understand some of those balls weren’t important to juggle to begin with. Let the small stuff go and destress.
What rubber balls are you frantically trying to keep up in the air at work, at home, at school, anywhere? Recognize and keep your glass ones going, but know when you can let a rubber ball hit the floor. It takes a lot of the stress out of juggling and life.