Drop the ‘Rubber Ball’: A metaphor for work / life balance

This post is by Associate Professor Evonne Miller, Director of Research Training, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.

As academics and human-beings, we are all busy – juggling work, family, friends, health and valued activities that support our spirit/soul. Yet, as we juggle these five core activities, we need to acknowledge that they are different – if dropped, some will bounce but others are glass balls that will shatter and break.  Knowing the difference – and acting accordingly – is critical. Today’s post is a reminder that – to be good researchers and great supervisors –  we need to make time for ourselves and space to rest, relax and THINK… and if we don’t, everybody (including our students) will suffer.

It might not feel like it, but work will always bounceon the other hand, our health, our relationships with family and friends, and our spirit.. those things are much more delicate and easily bruised, crushed and shattered. They are fragile glass balls – and  need to be treated with care. 


This so-called ‘rubber ball’ metaphor (first attributed to Coca Cola CEO Brian Dyson) is a good visual reminder of what is important to us. So, while I feel bad about being a little slower than I might like in doing and responding to some work things recently, there are only so many hours in the day..  and I remind myself that WORK IS A RUBBER BALL THAT WILL (GENERALLY) BOUNCE.  

This analogy is not an excuse to be ‘a slacker’ at work, but rather to think about how we manage these five key ‘balls’. And, if we are unusually busy, we need to proactively communicate to our students and colleagues that there will be a delay. For example, I have emailed, explained the context and given a timeline for my responses. I am not ignoring ‘the work ball’, but I am dropping the least important parts and getting comfortable with letting it bounce just that a little longer… so I can prioritise those other ‘glass balls’  in my life that I must not drop*.

Ask yourself: What action can you take to actively reduce your stress and among your work differently  – even if just in the short term? 

  • Can you trial some innovative supervision strategies or joint / group supervision meetings? 
  • Can you ask an associate to step up and act as key contact for three months while you complete the critical curriculumn review and redesign that is consuming your every waking moment?  
  • Can you take one day a month as a personal leave day, just to get some headspace to do fun things?

As a practical action, I highly recommend taking ‘a day a month’ (or a quarter) as a personal life management strategy.

Most academics have lots of unused leave – take some of it…it might feel like it, but the world will not end! I remember once hearing a CEO of a large management consulting firm saying that many staff would quit, citing over-work in exit interviews – yet, they had many days of unused leave. He said the firm would ‘take, take and take’ – so it was up to the individual to put boundaries in place to ensure they did not burn-out. As academics, this resonates.

So –  instead of waiting for the breakdown and dropping all the balls in your life at once (NOT recommended!) –  lets  try and proactively adopt some strategies to better manage workplace stress. Doing that will make you not only a better, happier person but a smarter, sharper supervisor – you need some down time, some thinking time, so that you can work productively with your students to make those creative connections, the theoretical leaps of thought that are critical in innovative research. Similarly, if you see that your thesis student is stressed and struggling (for more tips, see a previous post: https://goo.gl/kl9r3j ), talk to them: discuss what strategies you adopt to manage stress and remind them that – at the end of the day – their thesis really is a rubber ball… their health and relationships are not so flexible and must be prioritised.

Look at your glass balls – family, friends, health and spirit – and figure out best how can protect and ‘polish’ them!  

For me, for the last few years, I try to get to an outdoor exercise bootcamp at least twice a week. That’s contact with nature (spirit), exercise (health), with others (friends) and the one I attend is called ‘bring the kids bootcamp’ – so I do (that’s family). One 30-45 minute activity, four glass balls polished – and I feel happier, healthier and intellectually sharper afterwards. You might want to do something less sweaty… I don’t blame you!  But – just pick something that you enjoy and schedule it in. Make an  appointment with yourself -to maintain your health, happiness and wellbeing … the glass balls that you must not break! 

*Writing about juggling the glass/rubber balls of life reminded me of a scene in the enjoyable movie “She’s all that”  – do you remember  the ‘hacky sack bouncing scene’, where high school hot shot (Freddie Prince Jr) compares his experience of stress to juggling (and not dropping) the hacky sack. If you want a reminder, watch: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=r9eRUXficRw.

The image is rocks balanced on top of each other; could not find a good juggling glass/rubber balls one – if anyone is an artist, would welcome them sketching one .. as they prioritize their ‘soul/spirit’ ball 🙂


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