Strive For Work-Life Integration, Not Balance

Stop trying to balance the mythical scales so that work and family demands and rewards are exactly even. Instead, take these steps to integrate the two for greater happiness and control.

Late one night I pulled out of the parking garage at the small airport near my home. There were no cars behind me as I handed my ticket over to the lady in the booth, so I asked if she ever felt trapped in the tiny enclosure. "Never," she answered. "I’m a writer, and it’s only busy here when a flight comes in. The rest of the time I work on my book." Her book? She volunteered that she is working on a novel based on characters she has created from the parking lot customers she meets.  Sure enough, there was a laptop propped up on the tiny counter next to her.

This stuck with me for a couple reasons. First, I hope one of her characters is not a tired-looking, middle-aged guy in an old Ford Explorer. Second, her situation reminded me of a self-assessment tool we have co-developed at the Center for Creative Leadership to help people cope with the challenge of work-life integration. (See my last column to see why I believe the idea of work-life balance is a sham.).  

Our goal is to help managers and leaders stop trying to balance the mythical scales so that work and family demands and rewards are exactly even. Rather, we try to help them understand this: Accurately assessing the nature of their own personalities, their sense of self-identity, and the degree of control they have over their work and family lives is crucial to finding satisfaction. Balance is not the goal. Integration is.

A snapshot of this concept could be applied to the lady in the ticket booth, whom I later learned is named Kate.

Understanding Your Behavior

Research shows that a critical aspect of integrating work/life facets is the degree to which you manage family interrupting work or work interrupting family. (We use the word "family" broadly to include family in a traditional sense and also friends). How does that play out in your case? Do you tend to blend personal and work tasks?  If so, you might be an integrator (There are two types of integrators—Work Firsters allow work to interrupt family. Family Firsters allow family to interrupt work.). 

Maybe you are more of a Separator and you tend to keep these tasks separated into defined blocks of time. If you are a Cycler you might switch back and forth between cycles of either highly integrating family and work followed by periods of intentionally separating them. (Think tax accountant in late winter). Recognizing which of these behavior patterns most naturally fit you and creating a strategy that takes them into account becomes a starting point for integration. Also understand this: None of these types is inherently better, so it’s important to recognize which of these are ideal for you—not which you think you should be.

Consider Kate’s situation. She told me that she doesn’t talk on the phone while she is working. As a result, her family and friends don’t call her at work. One of the things she likes about working at the airport (aside from the ready supply of book characters she meets) is that that she never takes work home at night. At least at first glance, she seems like a classic separator.

Discovering Your Identity

How we view ourselves plays a critical part in integrating work/life roles. Do you mostly identify yourself as work-focused, family-focused, some combination of those two—or something else altogether? (Hint: don’t answer this one the way you think you should answer it; be honest with yourself.). 

Work-focused people tend to identify themselves through their work roles—manager, vice president, leader. Family-focused people see themselves primarily as a parent, spouse, or friend. Dual-focused individuals identify with and invest in themselves equally in both roles. (Hint #2.  Most executives initially claim to be dual-focused. More often than not, their actions say otherwise.). Other-focused individuals primarily invest in interests that do not connect directly to work or family. Kate immediately introduced herself to me at the airport as a writer, not a tollbooth worker or mother—a strong indication she would qualify as "other-focused." 

Taking Back Control

In my work with executives, I often hear them explain things away by saying "My job makes me be that way." With some exceptions, it is usually the other way around. This is one of the exceptions. The reality is, there are some jobs that make successful work/life integration very difficult. 

More important is how they make you feel about the degree of control you have. To what degree do you feel in control of how you manage the boundaries between your work and personal life? Someone with high boundary control has a high degree of ability to decide when to focus on work or, by comparison, to focus on family. Working in a toll booth would inherently create a situation where the person would feel they have little control or flexibility. The need to be in the booth at all times, as well as the small confines and fishbowl surroundings, would create a sense of low boundary control. That seemed to work just fine for Kate, though many other people would feel overly restricted in a situation like that.

So here are a few key takeaways. First, do not try to balance anything. Second, try to integrate instead, which requires some real awareness of your preferred behaviors, self-identity, and sense of control. You need to dedicate some time to figuring out those preferences. Finally, there’s no "right" way to create an integrated life. The possibilities of what success looks like are as endless as the potential plot lines in a parking lot booth operator’s novel.

Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (www.ccl.org), a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research.

[Image: Flickr user Dennis Wilkinson]

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12 Comments

  • Marcie L Jennings

    For years, 4 to be exact, I have been praying that God teach me how to create balance in my life.  Balance between my professional, personal, and spiritual life.  Now I see why, four years later, I still am fighting with this.  It is because balance isn't the key, its setting boundaries.  I have started to set my limits on where, what, how, and when I put effort towards.  One area of my life may need more focus than another.  This article did clear so much up, and now when I have to focus more on work for a period of time I can be at peace to know that it will be just that, 'a period of time".   Once that project tapers down, I can then focus on my family.  I also decide that when I get home, besides the work that I may catch up as far as daily maintenance, will be reserved for my family.

  • Allison O'Kelly

    “… stop trying to balance the mythical scales so that work and family demands and rewards are exactly even.” Absolutely. The concept of balance invokes the idea that if things aren’t “even,” as Craig mentions, then one of our sides (personal or professional) loses out. Under that definition, that would be a daily occurrence for me, and it isn’t attainable or sustainable. We focus more on work/life alignment where work may be “up” one week due to priorities and deadlines, then the focus shifts to family for outings and school functions. Craig's idea of integration, taking into account that human situations are fluid and dynamic, is much more realistic. Taking his point further: any professional, with a family or not, knows that motivations, priorities, work cycles, family and social lives are ever changing. Being able to recognize (and predict) when these changes are coming up, and preparing yourself and those around you accordingly, is the ideal for living a comfortably integrated life.— Allison  O'Kelly, founder/CEO of Mom Corps 

  • Akilah Richards

    See, this post is precisely why I love the internet.  I've long felt that I was in some sort of Lone Wolf bubble about the idea that Work-Life balance is a myth! I write about it often on my blog, and I've recently written a book (and created and entire Survival Kit) around the idea of ditching the myth and instead, focusing on work-life harmony and lifestyle management tools.  THANK YOU for showing me that others get/live/teach this truth.  Your post was so well-written, and I was this.close to high-fivin' my screen when you said "Accurately assessing the nature of their
    own personalities, their sense of self-identity, and the degree of control they
    have over their work and family lives is crucial to finding satisfaction. Balance
    is not the goal. Integration is." You better SPEAK, Craig Chappelow!! 

  • Enrique Fiallo

    I always felt that the whole idea of work-life balance was kind of "mythical'ish". although I couldn't quite put my finger on why. Your post offers a nice explanation of why. Work-Life Balance is in fact, quite literally, a crock. I also agree with the idea of awareness, so that you can customize just how to integrate. One thing i am having trouble grasping though, is the Work-Firsters part. it just seems to me that you miss the whole point of having a family in the "first" place if you don't put them "first". No?
    Enrique
    Fiallo

  • Craig Chappelow

    Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful responses.  Zinn, love your perspective of not getting a life, but enjoying the life you have. Gretchen, it was an eye opener to me when we started to review the way "balance" is marketed to women in product advertising, promising balance if you just bought the right air conditioner, credit card, or lunch meat (true story).  Dale, sorry the post didn't connect for you, and I appreciate that you took the time to respond.  I share your aversion to buzzwords (see my FC Christmas post) although I would argue that the terms we use are labels that attempt to describe behaviorial patterns--much like extraversion and introversion is used in MBTI.  Again, thanks to all of you for your posts.

  • Wilkins-O'Riley Zinn

    Regardless of its flaws, this is an important concept. For almost two decades, I have been presenting to teachers and human service professionals about issues related to integration, not just of work and family, but of other aspects of human potential as well, including creative passions. As a poet and artist who makes her living as a teacher and is the sole wage earner in her family, I strive to integrate all aspects of my life so that I do not find myself longing to "get a life," but instead enjoy the one I have. The concept of integration is increasingly important for those who thought they would be able to retire and enjoy those mythical "golden years," but who now find themselves continuing to work out of necessity. Integrating personal passions and creative possibilities into one's life matters, and thus I am delighted to see this conversation happening. Fortunately for the toll booth operator, she could indulge in her writerly passions at work and still perform her job duties. It is more challenging for those who must actually focus on work at work!

  • Gretchen

    I have to say this sounds like a uniquely feminine argument. Which makes it all the more exciting that a man is expounding upon it. Yes Dale the concepts are "challenging," but what would life be without challenges? My conclusion about self-help books is that If you learn one good thing in a book that you can apply to your life, then your time is not lost. Have you learned something today?

  • Diann Corbett

    I like your application of current research on work-family conflict vs. work family facilitation to real world coaching scenarios, Craig. It is great to see it applied in a way which strengthens underlying self-evaluations and allows people to better manage the ever-blurring boundaries between work and home.

  • Guest

    Mr. Chappelow, I could not agree more. I believe that balance is something that can not be achieved. A different perspective will open up possibilities that are achievable. 'To thy own self be true' is the main guide for people's life. In the end it's about finding out what works, what doesn't work and what makes one happy. We are all at choice, always. The sooner we realize that, the better. Thanks for a great post!

  • Dale Catz

    Wow. What did I just read? So you can be a "separator" but "integrate" work and life? Kate is somehow an example of achieving nirvana, but the readers should instead integrate, not balance? What do either of those terms even mean to Mr. Chappelow and what's the contrast? It's just buzzword vs. buzzword. This post reads more like an advertisement for his consultancy gig. 
    Sorry. Just a terribly useless post.