Learning to Juggle

Prevention Magazine . June, 2004
How keeping just a few balls in the air can help you stay sane

I was about to give a talk on balance to a group of businesswomen in Atlanta recently. Before I started, the organizer pulled me aside and whispered an impassioned plea in my ear: “Please don’t give us that tired old myth about keeping everything in balance. No one lives in balance except the occasional hermit meditating in a cave. Just be honest and teach us how to be better jugglers.”

She was right. Like many women, I was taught to believe that if you identify and pursue the right blend of activities, you’ll be able to live a balanced life and be your best self. The result of this myth is that our busy modern lives, which are already crammed with commitments and choices, get ever more overloaded. Does every moment of the day really have to be an offering to the gods of self-improvement?

One of those ubiquitous polls examining how Americans live revealed that a mere 2 percent of us believe that our lives are in balance. So if we think they should be, we’ll probably suffer twice: once from the stress of being out of balance, and a second time from guilt and feelings of failure. Everyone else is balanced; why aren’t we?

The metaphor for coping I prefer, which was popularized by the late Yale psychologist Daniel Levinson, is juggling. In his seminal study, Levinson interviewed homemakers and career women in their 40s about their attempts to balance work and family. Most of them laughed at the worn-out myth of the superwoman who just keeps on keeping on with great brilliance and flair. By 40, most of these former superwomen irritably conceded that the best they could do was just to keep a few balls in the air.

If you’re a busy person, then you can relate. It’s absurd to think that for years you’ll be able to balance work and family life, simultaneously running the school board, rising to the top of your profession, caring for your aging parents, and baking organic bread from scratch. Perhaps, like the exhausted women in Levinson’s study, you plan to take better care of yourself in the second half of your life. Here’s an idea: Just think of what a breakthrough it would be to take care of yourself now.

It’s normal and natural for busy people to be like jugglers, trying to keep multiple balls in the air. And from time to time, we all can expect to drop a few. But what’s most important isn’t how high the balls soar; it’s staying centered so your juggling act is more fun and skillful. Then even dropped balls won’t roll out of reach.

Shifting your focus from balancing to centering means that you quit trying to micromanage your life and start managing yourself instead. Here’s an example: I give about 50 lectures and seminars every year. Naturally, these programs require preparation. But if I obsess about refining the subject matter to the nth degree, the presentations get dull and lose their spontaneity. So over the years, I’ve learned to focus on preparing the speaker instead of the speech. That doesn’t excuse me from doing my homework, but it does put a different spin on things.

Before a presentation, you won’t find me reviewing my notes. I might be laughing and schmoozing with participants, doing some yoga stretches, or enjoying a few minutes of meditation. When I’m centered in my best self, creativity naturally flows, and my presentation is much improved. Ditching the concept of balance altogether and replacing it with centering was an enormous shift for me.

Is my life balanced? Rarely. Am I centered? Generally. Does that help keep me happy and productive even when I drop a ball? You bet it does.

Here’s the mindset that good jugglers eventually internalize: You toss the ball. You keep your eye on the ball. You catch the ball or you drop the ball. But one thing’s for certain. You’re not the ball, and your happiness isn’t dependent on how it flies through the air. Happiness is inside you. It’s your center and your birthright. If you make centering your first priority, then the rest of your busy life will move forward with much more grace and ease.

Tips for Being a Better Juggler

  • Do what’s counterintuitive. When you feel overwhelmed by the worry and pressure of having too much to do, drop all your balls. Take 20 minutes and center yourself with a walk, a jog, a meditation session, or some breathing or stretching exercises. When you go back to juggling, it will flow much more organically, and you’ll most likely save time.
  • Learn to juggleliterally. It really helps to shortcut your worried mind, gets you back into your body, and helps you find your focus. I’m just a beginner, but I can testify that juggling is fun and relatively easy. You can order instructional videos or DVDs from several Web sites, including www.seriousjuggling.com. And although these sites offer the expert an enormous variety of props (such as flaming torches), most of us can make do very nicely with a few pairs of rolled-up socks.
  • Do nothing. Find at least 20 minutes each day to do absolutely nothing, and schedule it on your calendar. Whether you call it loafing or just being, allow yourself a rest from constant doing, and you’ll return to your life refreshed and better able to juggle your activities.
  • Just say no. Decline any nonessential request that requires your time. Saying yes to lunch can be a half-day proposition. If you have trouble saying no, try responding with maybe. Tell your colleague that you’ll get back to her later. This will give you some breathing space to firm up your boundaries.

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