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Juggling all sorts of things!

We have endless opportunities to learn, if only we take them. I recently commented on the survival of the learner (, and feel that you can pick pretty much any topic and find something interesting in it.

When my youngest was in elementary school, he had to prepare a five-minute presentation for his class, and was having trouble finding a topic. I told him that he could pick any topic, but he pushed back on that, telling me it was harder than that. He then “called my bluff”, when I commented that I could talk for five minutes on any topic he could think of. We settled on his pencil as a topic, and I waxed poetic on the history of writing implements – only stopping at five minutes after confirming that I had made my point. (In the end, he did very well on his presentation.)

For me, learning is fun for its own sake, and there are interesting things anywhere you look. The real questions are: What interests you, and how much time do you want to devote to each interest?

Which brings us to juggling. I’ve commented on it before (, in the context of not trying to do too many things at once, and of finding ways to organize yourself, and just barely managed to avoid going down a series of rabbit-holes regarding the history of juggling (

I learned how to juggle through being asked to help teach people how to juggle at a Renaissance Fair. The fact that I didn’t know how to juggle was really irrelevant, since the people wanting to learn didn’t know how to juggle either. My job was to get people used to juggling one ball (ie, tossing a ball from one hand to the other), and then two balls (ie, hold one ball in each hand, tossing one ball, then tossing the other when the first reached about eye level, then catching both balls), and then leaving the experienced juggler to do the rest.

Over that day, I learned how to keep three balls in the air for a few passes, so I guess I could say that’s where I learned to juggle, but the best part was seeing a number of professional jugglers doing things I could barely understand, let alone do. In any case, that’s where I bought the chain-mail juggling balls pictured above.

While balls are probably the easiest thing to learn how to juggle, people can (and do) juggle pretty much anything they can get their hands on. The most common objects or “props” are balls, clubs, or rings, but it’s not hard to find examples of people juggling knives, torches, or tennis rackets (which behave more or less similarly to clubs), or fruits, bowling balls, or boxes (which behave more or less similarly to balls).

As I understand it (from my limited experience, and what I have heard and read), it is relatively simple to juggle items of the same size, shape, and weight, and becomes progressively harder as the items become less similar. Juggling tennis balls or bowling balls are comparable in terms of skill required, but juggling two tennis balls and one bowling ball (or vice versa) is significantly more difficult.

Where am I going with this?

Getting back to the metaphor of juggling work tasks, it’s all very well to say that we will only work on three items at a time (as an example), but the important thing is to make sure they are the right three items, especially when many tasks may superficially seem equivalent.

Picture your tasks as juggling balls of various sizes and types. As you complete each task, you place it on a table, and someone throws you another ball.

So far, so good, so long as the balls aren’t too different in size, shape, and weight, right?

Now picture that some of the balls are painted glass which will shatter if you drop them, and filled with something nasty which will make a mess on the floor that you will have to clean up. At first glance, they look the same as the other balls, but you do NOT want to drop one of these.

If you never drop a ball, no problem, but everyone will drop balls from time to time, and no one really wants to spend time cleaning up messes they can avoid.

What to do? If we know ahead of time which balls are filled with sand and will simply drop, and which balls will bounce, and which will break, we will be able to manage far better.

This is what prioritization can help with.

I read the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( about 15 years ago, and found it interesting and helpful (though a bit over-hyped). One of the points I found most useful was the “matrix” Covey used, breaking items into quadrants ranging from “Urgent” to “Not Urgent” on one axis, and “Important” to “Not Important” on the other.

I find the matrix to be a useful concept in thinking about how to organize work, but (as is usually the case) it’s NOT some magical tool which will suddenly make everything better. #TIL that this technique is actually referred to as an Eisenhower Matrix (, and is apparently derived from some comments made by U.S. President Eisenhower in the 1950’s, though it’s unclear when the “technique” was formalized, or by whom - perhaps something for future investigation.

However you do your prioritization and risk analysis, the important thing to realize is that you need to understand what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what will happen if something is not done, or is not done correctly. If needed, drop a ball - preferably one that won’t make a mess.



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