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 ]