Brian Lockwood

Rubber Balls vs Glass balls – a metaphor for task prioritization

June 28, 2018 by

When I was in the Army we all got a 2 page hard copy with a visual called “Rubber balls vs glass balls” as an analogy for balancing the many day to day priorities of being an Officer. It was a compelling article that I’ve referred back to many times in life. I’ve spent the last couple years looking for it on the web, but with no luck here is my attempt to recreate it from scratch, by memory.

In the course of your career you will be faced with many tasks that compete for your time and attention. Some will be mundane tasks like reviewing your platoon’s suggestion box, others will be critical like reserving a slot at the firing range for when your platoon is scheduled for marksmanship training. Drop a mundane task and nothing will happen, at least initially. But drop a critical task and you will have a problem on your hands.

You can think of these as rubber balls and glass balls.

Drop a rubber ball and it will bounce harmlessly. I like to review our platoon’s suggestions each month but most of the items are complaints about things like double-duty and equipment maintenance that I can’t do anything about. Only occasionally is there anything of any real value. So it is really OK if I’m late once in a while. The CO just suggested I check it – he didn’t say I had to. *bounce*

But drop a glass ball and there are immediate consequences that may be detrimental to your career. Miss the range and your platoon doesn’t shoot. If this causes the battalion to get certified late, it won’t go over well at the top. And the disappointment will roll downhill. To make matters worse, a memo went out reminding everyone to sign-up early to prevent such a thing from happening. The CO trusted you to follow through and now he’s on the hot seat. Don’t think he’ll forget when it comes time to review you at the end of the year. *crash*

Good officers immediately recognize and can triage all of their various tasks into glass balls and rubber balls and handle them accordingly. They don’t waste time on rubber balls, if there are glass balls at risk of being dropped.  

But what if it isn’t so obvious whether it is a glass ball or a rubber ball? In such cases, it is always important to clarify the task with your superior or the requester of the task. Ultimately, the nature of a ball, glass or rubber, is defined by the person assigning it. Many a glass ball has broken, to an officer’s surprise who thought it was just rubber.

List your current tasks by priority and delivery date. Review this list with your superior on an at least weekly, if not daily basis. Discuss the task itself and the priority. This will bring to light any glass balls that may be lurking in your list.

So I can let rubber balls bounce forever right? Wrong. Rubber balls do bounce but not forever. At some inopportune moment they will suddenly turn to glass and shatter. That suggestion box you haven’t reviewed now for 3 months contained multiple requests to fix the air conditioner in the barracks. When a complaint finally reached the CO he asked if you had any suggestions to that effect for which you had to reply that you had, but hadn’t checked. *crash*

Complete easy to accomplish tasks quickly regardless of their priority, otherwise they may be forgotten and ultimately become problematic

Your career in the military will be a constant juggling act of keeping a variety of tasks in motion, or balls in the air. When a task must be delayed or re-prioritized due to finite time resources, the effective officer will make a concerted effort to keep the glass balls in the air, while only letting the rubber balls drop. Reliably completing critical tasks on time is a cornerstone trait of successful officers in the Army and a strong indicator of long term success.