I tried to juggle once. I was one of those rare kids who actually had an (over)abundance of self-esteem — it wasn’t a mere front to protect my tender soul — and having seen some dude effortlessly tossing around bowling pins I naturally assumed I could do the same.
I was wrong. My efforts to juggle assorted lunchroom items and impress the squad instantly became a disaster of epic proportions. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the juggling part that really got me…I didn’t even get to that part.
Apparently, you’re supposed to make sure a yogurt carton is closed before you try to juggle it. I can still smell the acrid odor of calcium-imbued failure all these years later.
As an unrelated PSA: the smell of yogurt is really hard to get out of your hair.
I believe that every memory has something to teach us, no matter how innocuous it may seem. This dairy-scented catastrophe is no exception. People who juggle are either naturally suited for the task, or they’ve spent years learning to master it.
Most of us will never be jugglers. That circus just isn’t our tent, and trying to enter it will only bring us gross, socially-ostracising failure. So why do we insist on trying to be someone we’re not, often over and over again?
It’s time to face the facts and put down the Chobani, people — before we come to regret it. Here’s my hard-earned perspective on “juggling life” and all the associated catastrophes that arise from it.
Why Do You Want To Juggle, Anyway?
I still try to take on too much, too early. Frequently. The only reason it hasn’t held me back as much as it used to is my own determination to cultivate self-awareness (and a bunch of therapy sessions, but I’m trying to save you the $180 a session).
That awareness has grown over time, and it all began with one simple question. Why did I want to juggle projects, tasks, responsibilities, and roles in the first place? What was it about this consistently dissatisfying path that drew me in over and over again?
There are many possible answers to this query, but I’ll list a few of the common ones I’ve noticed in myself over the last couple of years:
- I want to be “at success” right now — in my mind, it’s a destination that I can get to faster by doing more more more, all at once.
- I feel like a failure if I don’t have several fires burning at the same time, as if I’m neglecting my “potential” or “giving up” on secondary projects every time I insist on focusing on the big, important one (like a novel, a particular blog, a certain client, etc).
- Life feels too risky and uncertain if I don’t constantly have “backup projects” to work on in addition to my focus areas, and I feel anxious about possibly losing all of my progress and footing when I try to only work on one thing.
- I get bored really easily and have been told in the past that I don’t “stick with things,” to the point that I’ve developed an internal paradigm about it; somehow, focusing on many things must mean I won’t give up on anything, right?
All of these answers are based on false conceptions of how life, relationships, my career, and my own mental health function. But when you’re in a whirlwind and have come to accept it as normal, you don’t think about the fact that it’s a whirlwind.
Most of the time you have to get hit in the head by a flying cow (like in those old movies) before you realize you’re in a bad situation and should try to exit. This metaphorical bovine intervention is unpleasant and generally signals impending doom for your mental stability and physical health.
Skip the cow, my friend — try to press pause and introspect a bit instead. Answering the why do I want/need/feel I must juggle question frequently can save you a lot of heartaches.
Overestimating Ourselves Feels Better Than Accepting Weaknesses: Or, “We’ve All Got Big Egos And They’re Trying To Kill Us.”
Forgive me for channeling Freud for a moment (who, by the way, was a real creep), but we’re all using defense mechanisms to protect our egos. No, it doesn’t take the form of “penis envy” or other frankly degenerate theories — our usual methods are much simpler.
We don’t want to be scared, and we don’t want to get hurt. So we lie to ourselves or bend the truth a bit to prevent either of those things from happening. The ego, after all, is really just a synonym for our individual sense of self.
One of the most common lies we tell ourselves is that we can “do it all” in some way or another, such as in our careers and personal lives. Overestimating our ability to take on multiple burdens feels better than accepting limitations…at first.
Unfortunately, our defense mechanisms tend to be less than viable in the long term. They’re meant to scratch an itch, so to speak, and that itch is very much a moment-to-moment phenomenon.
Fearing inadequacy? Hurting because you already feel inadequate? Those are both some powerful itches. But when we use overestimation to scratch them, we eventually end up with something else: chronic stress.
This second, more insidious itch is quite literally a silent killer. As in, yes, doctors really call it that. Not doctors like Freud, either — real, non-f***ed up ones.
Chronic stress is going to do a hell of a lot more damage to your body and your psyche than those natural insecurities will, and when we trade momentary relief for something so permanently damaging, we’re choosing to make a terrible investment.
It takes practice to catch yourself in the throes of overestimation, kind of like it’s hard to stop scratching a rash even though you know it’s making the damn thing worse. Consciously, that is. Unconsciously you’re like one of those dogs that have to wear a cone of shame to stop pulling out stitches.
It’s better to wear that metaphorical cone of shame — in this case, frequent reflection and radical self-honesty about our natural limitations — than to break open those wounds and bleed all over your mothers’ nice velour sofa.
Accept that you’re human. It’s okay to not have infinite energy. If you had infinite energy, America would tell everyone you need to be “liberated” and then invade you for it. Limitations keep us safe, and weaknesses keep us human.
We Somehow Convince Ourselves That Juggling Will “Be Different This Time…” Every Time We Try It.
The strange thing about overdoing it is that the slippery slope feels, well, not slippery every time we decide to approach it. Our pants may still be covered in mud and our skin is still bruised from the last time we slipped, but at that moment we seem to see nothing but an idyllic hillside in front of us.
Until we slip. Again. Then we sit there at the bottom of the slope and berate ourselves for not realizing it was slippery. Honestly, it’s not a very productive way to live — which is pretty ironic, when you think about it.
What is juggling if not a lifelong quest to reach some mythical “productivity” landscape that doesn’t truly exist beyond our own minds? We’re all Don Quixote fighting imaginary battles against a multitude of made-up enemies — but really, we’ve been fighting ourselves the whole time.
Sometimes fighting yourself is a good thing, like kicking a smoking habit or challenging yourself to learn something new. In this case, however, it’s more like beating the crap out of ourselves because we “didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
The “what” in this case is usually some impossible array of projects, self-improvement quests, career tasks, or lifestyle changes. Note the word impossible. If attacking illusions in the name of the impossible isn’t Quixotic, I don’t know what is.
Every time you charge yourself with the impossible and try to juggle too much at once, you’re lying to yourself and pretending things are different than they actually are. And while make-believe is satisfying for a little while, it quickly grows old.
It won’t be different this time — you might be different, but your mortal limitations and needs have remained the same. Juggling will be just as damaging to your health and stability as it always is. No matter how many times you stab a windmill in the name of chivalry, at the end of the day it’s still property damage.
Acting as though there’s a magic “fix” that will make you superhuman isn’t just useless, it’s also terribly unkind. By acting as though your reasonable, human needs are wrong, you’re being cruel to yourself. It’s like flogging a mule because it isn’t an ox.
When you start to rationalize your juggling behaviors, you’ve entered the danger zone. It’s important that you teach yourself to spot this tendency early and learn to dig your heels in before you slide down that hill. Framing it as self-kindness is a good way to do that, in my experience.
You deserve kindness from yourself. You’re wonderful as you are, limitations included.
Basically, We’re All A Little Freaked Out — But Juggling Will Only Make It Worse.
Like so many aspects of our warp-speed, sound-byte-worshipping modern world, the “maximum productivity” movement is, for the most part, built on a lie.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely possible to become more productive. It’s even possible to become a lot more productive…if you’re willing to sacrifice a few things to get to that point. Things like health, happiness, or fulfillment, for example.
The problem with our current productivity ideals is that they’re constructed from a flawed premise. Questioning that premise is hard. All our lives, we’re taught that “becoming more productive” is the thing to reach for — we’re told that increasing our output is how we measure our success and worth as human beings.
Pardon me, but that’s some consumerist bullsh** right there. Not only that, but it’s really f***ed up. Like, even more f***ed up than Freud. Last I checked, I didn’t sign up to be a machine, and I definitely didn’t sign up to be a machine that serves other people’s goals and values.
If juggling myself into oblivion is the only way to achieve worth in the eyes of society, I’ll choose ostracism. I have many acres of fine woodland to my name and will happily embrace life as an isolated, unproductive forest hag if it means avoiding that piss-poor deal.
When you choose to harm yourself by juggling too many things at once, you’re playing a game where nobody wins. Eventually, the “prize” turns out to be a fat honking load of burnout, disillusionment, bad self-esteem, and cynicism.
I think we can do better. I believe you can do anything you truly set your mind to, but only when you accept that “anything” doesn’t mean “everything.” You do not need to — and can’t — do everything. There, was that so hard to read?
Now, consider this your official permission to go take a nap, breathe deeply, and eat some Yoplait (sans hair). Be human for a while. Let the jugglers enjoy their circus.
You and me? We’ve got better things to look forward to.