Keeping All the Balls in the Air, Or 'Calgon, Take Me Away!'

Most days I don't get my whole to-do list done, and some days I don't do any of the list at all. But it's not the end of the world -- I always have the list to come back to, like a compass showing me the right course, and know that these are the things in my life that matter to me.
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I'm dating myself to reference the 70s commercial starring the frazzled working mother longing for a break from a day of obligations. No doubt why it's a classic -- everyone can relate. Even though I was a kid when the commercial aired, I could see my own mom and other moms, and even I knew Calgon wouldn't be enough.

Having parented three kids for the last 14 years, one dog for the last two, as well as managed and supported the people and services that orbit around them (husband, friends, work, school, community involvement, vet, etc.), it's easy to see there are just too many balls in the air. Usually I can maintain a somewhat awkward juggle of most, with some inevitably falling for a while until I can get them back in play. Very rarely have I felt like all the balls were in the air -- and when they were, I looked like one of those out-of-control jugglers stumbling around trying to catch bowling pins that went off course. How undignified!

My life feels a bit like that game where you try to get everything to fit and just when you think you have, one piece pops out. I'll take three hours to really clean up the kids' rooms, but that means I didn't have time to make dinner. Or I'll spend an afternoon writing a report, but then I have no idea what's going on in the news that day. So I go from feeling elated that I made headway on something like the rooms or the desk, only to feel dejected soon after that there's no dinner or downtime.

How to keep it all in balance?

I've finally accepted that by simple math alone, I'm just not going to do it all. In my 24-hour day there is not enough time to do the three hours of desk work sitting in a pile right now, the 10 hours of cleanup required in the kids' rooms, along with all the rest.

What does work for me is tossing each ball in air, by itself, for 10 minutes a day. I keep a list of the things that are important to me (separate from all the have tos). These are some of the things on my "important" list:
  • One-on-one time with the kids (rather than just the daily blur of busyness)
  • Reading for pleasure (work my way through a book a few pages at a time)
  • Friend time (having a little bit of friend contact each day)
  • Feng shui the house (this sounds loftier than it is -- really I'm just trying to "minimalize" the house -- tidying, getting rid of stuff, etc.)
  • Desk work (doesn't sound very fulfilling -- think of it as "keeping the household humming")
  • News/current events (looking outside the day-to-day)
  • Family finances (again, not too exciting, but important)
  • Health meals (taking a few minutes to be proactive rather than doing the 7 p.m. scramble)
  • Surprise! (something that comes out of nowhere that I'd normally say I don't have time for -- like a phone call or a game with the kid)

I keep a little notebook with each item written down the left side of the page. I know that life will get in the way for most of the day, but that these are the things I'll squeeze in where I can throughout the day. The list helps me keep track of what's important and is a cheat sheet when I have a few minutes and wonder how I'll use them. Having the list at the ready means I don't have to think about it off the top of my head. I can automatically jump in.

Things I've learned from the "important" list:
  • I need to change my perspective. How many times have I been stuck in traffic with the kids and thought, "This is such a waste of time"? But when I can remember that "one-on-one time with the kids" is on my list, then I can relax (a little) and make the most of our time alone together.
  • If it's written down, I do it. "Healthy meals" is on my list. So if I remember to check my list early in the morning, I use 10 minutes before the kids are up to pick a recipes, defrost some bread, and pull out ingredients for dinner before we've even had breakfast. As someone who fears cooking, this immediately relieves the dread I usually feel all day.
  • The "interruptions" to the schedule can be the highlight of the day. Some things that I might think of as "getting in the way" of the day, actually make the day -- like when the kids ask to play a game and my first reaction is "I'm too busy." Or a call comes in from a friend I haven't spoken with in a while and I think I'm too busy too talk.
  • It works with my perverse love of the "check off." While I might feel self-indulgent sitting and reading, if it's on the list it must be checked off! If I get to a meeting early, I can do my 10 minutes of reading and know I've done something fun for the day. Check!
  • It helps make sure I don't get too overwhelmed. Chipping away 10 minutes at a time keeps it from piling up too much. Some tasks I hate (desk work) or fear (financial planning), so I avoid them for months. If I push them forward 10 minutes a day, they get done a little at a time and never get too boring or out of control.
  • It's like a string around my finger. When there happens to be a few free minutes, I might just automatically clean up the kitchen or check email. With my list, I can see what I'd rather do with those few minutes.
  • It isn't written in ink. I can easily change it as my life and priorities change.

Most days I don't get the whole list done, and some days I don't do any of the list at all. Sometimes life is just too busy (crazy that I can be busy all day without checking off a single "important" thing). I do feel a bit off-balance on those days that I don't do anything on the list. But it's not the end of the world -- I always have the list to come back to, like a compass showing me the right course, and know that these are the things in my life that matter to me.

I know it sounds ridiculous that I only spend 10 minutes a day on the things that I say "matter" to me! And that's probably true. Maybe my life will change one day so I have enough time for all of them. But for now, I'm just trying to keep the balls in play.

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