Am I frantically juggling when I should be letting things go off the edge of a cliff?

When I started my first faculty position at Georgia Tech, I felt like I was juggling as fast as I could; every time it felt like I was starting to get a hang of things, a new ball would get tossed in. I mentioned this at some point to someone there who said: the key is to remember that some balls are glass and some are rubber.

I was thinking about that juggling metaphor again recently because I was involved in a discussion with other faculty about how we all have too much to do. There was some discussion of the root causes of this, including a major decline in administrative support and more expectations. Obviously those are huge issues that are worthy of much more thought and systemic solutions. But there was also a discussion of what we can do individually in the short term as we all struggle with this. At some point, someone said something to the effect of, “you need to accept that you are never going to be able to do it all, and you have to accept that some things are just going to go off the edge of the cliff”.

In the week since this person said that, I’ve had that phrase go through my head so many times. I think I’m trying to frantically juggle when, to mix my metaphors, I should be letting some things go off the cliff. To me, the juggling metaphor suggests that I will eventually try to add those rubber balls back in. And that will be true sometimes – for example, there are some times of the semester when teaching and service responsibilities take over, and you certainly want to add research back in later (though I’m not sure research would generally be labeled a rubber ball for folks at research-intensive universities – this is one of the points of the NCFDD program). But, at the same time, having a bunch of balls rolling around by my feet is distracting and stressful. If I know that I will never be able to pick them all up, maybe I should toss some of them off the edge of the proverbial cliff?

The challenge for me is how to actually do that — how to let things go off the edge of the cliff. But before thinking about strategies, I should note that, when I think about letting things go off the cliff, I’m thinking about things that will never get done by anyone but also things that I will not do but others will.

As for strategies of how to actually do this: sometimes it’s saying no in the first place, even if it’s something I’d like to do. (As I said in this recent post, there are lots of things that are interesting and important, and I cannot do them all.) Sometimes it’s backing out of something I already agreed to – I’m likely to decide I need to do that on a couple of things in the near future. But some of the things require saying “no” to myself more than anything else, and that can be very hard to do.

When other people come to me in this sort of situation, I suggest that they make explicit the things that they won’t be able to do if they say yes to a given thing. But, while I know that and give that advice, it can be hard to implement sometimes. I also need to remind myself that overwork can come in the form of flattery. This line from this piece really resonated with me: “requests in academe rarely come in the shape of cold demands; they come tightly wrapped in appreciation”. It is definitely harder to say no when the person asking is making it seem like you are uniquely positioned or qualified to work on something. I also need to remind myself that sometimes I am inferring that the person thinks I’m really the person for the job — sometimes, when I’m asked to do something, I assume they have carefully evaluated all the possible people who can work on it and concluded I am best suited, when, in reality, sometimes it’s just that I’m the first person who popped into their head.

So, what I’m interested in hearing from others is: what helps you let go of things that you’d ideally like to do but don’t have time for? Do you try to juggle or do you let things go off the cliff — or maybe neither of those metaphors work for you?

3 thoughts on “Am I frantically juggling when I should be letting things go off the edge of a cliff?

  1. About 15 years ago one of my grad students said to me “I can’t believe how you keep all those balls in the air”, to which I replied “I don’t, I’m dropping balls all the time”. Establishing priorities is everything in a job where the workload seems to grow indefinitely and usually has little to do with one’s actual ability to get things done. You need to make sure that the balls that are really important stay in motion … and not worry too much about some drops of others. At one point, at a particularly busy time, I was asked to be a member of an important science policy panel and my partner, also an academic, asked me “the panel sounds great, are you going to take the time for it from your students or from your kids? Do you think your presence there is necessary for a good decision?” Those were good questions to ask – and they pushed me to look carefully at my time management, cumulative professional commitments, and my potential role in the panel. I ended up saying no to the panel and they made the “right” decision anyway. Time really is a zero-sum game and there are limits to how much we can just add more tasks by increasing work efficiency and cutting out “luxury” activities like sleep, relaxation, exercise, etc.

  2. I had an exploration crew a while back that wanted me to go to the bar with them *so bad* that after a lot of tugging I finally gave in. Then they flattered me by lining up about 10 beer and 5 or so tequilla shots on the table in front of me.

    I wound up leaving almost all of that flattery on the table. I never regretted it.

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