Work-life balance–or work-life integration–is a hot topic right now. Even employers are getting in on the trend, presenting work-life balance as a perk in job descriptions.
There are certainly ways that the company you work for can destroy your work-life balance, hustle culture being a prime example. But there’s also research that suggests that achieving work-life balance has little to do with your job–it’s mostly driven by your personality.
How personality impacts your ability to achieve work-life balance
In her book Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries Through Everyday Life, sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng proposes that there are two types of people:
- Segmentors are people who are able to draw clear lines between work and life.
- Integrators are people who struggle to separate work and life.
Segmentors may be able to work more than 40 hours a week and still feel like they have sufficient work-life balance because they can shut off thoughts about work when they go home. Integrators, on the other hand, may struggle even at 40 hours a week because they continue to think about work at home, making them less engaged with their families, priorities, and activities outside of work.
So if you’re an integrator, your job, boss, or employer may have little to do with your inability to achieve work-life balance. It may simply be that you’re inclined to blur the lines–incapable of segmenting the different parts of your life–so your struggle to achieve work-life balance follows you from job to job throughout your entire career.
Most people are integrators
A few years ago, the people analytics team at Google sought to understand how Nippert-Eng’s findings applied to Google employees. They conducted a study and found that only 31% of their employees could be classified as segmentors.
The other 69%–more than two-thirds of all of their employees–were integrators.
Additionally, they found that Segmentors tended to be much more satisfied with their well-being than Integrators. Integrators, on the other hand, were much more likely to express their desire to find a better balance between work and life. If you feel like you struggle to balance work and life, you’re probably an Integrator.
Without a doubt, I am an integrator. A few years ago, I worked with a segmentor–let’s call him Frank–in a particularly stressful job. One morning, I was chatting with Frank about our project while we were getting ready for a meeting, and I mentioned that I had trouble sleeping the night before because I couldn’t stop thinking about a new problem we were facing on the project.
“You were up late thinking about work?” Frank asked.
“Yes,” I said. “You weren’t?”
“I never think about work after I leave here for the day,” he replied.
Frank was a segmentor.
When you’re an integrator, the idea of just not thinking about work at home sounds like a fairy tale. “Just don’t think about it” simply isn’t a viable solution to finding a better work-life balance; it’s not a viable solution to anything, really. It’s as helpful as telling an anxious person not to worry.
However, there is some research that may hold the keys to overcoming your integrator tendencies so that you can train yourself to be more like Frank.
Find an activity that frees your mind from thoughts about work
A study by Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology presents research showing that drawing a line between work and life requires psychological detachment.
When we’re at work, we experience work-related stress. Once that stress is no longer present, our bodies and brains begin to recover. But Sonnentag and Fritz argue that simply being away from work isn’t enough to fully recover; you also need to create psychological detachment from work.
They found that engaging in activities outside of work, from simple things like taking a walk or reading a book to more intensive activities like learning a language or playing a sport–were much more likely to help people detach from work and work-related thoughts.
But the specific activity that creates psychological detachment differs from person to person. “It is not a specific activity per se that helps to recover from job stress but its underlying attributes such as relaxation or psychological distance from job-related issues,” Sonnentag and Fritz write. To find your activity, you may have to try different things to see what works.
Stop engaging in activities that remind you of work
Have you ever glanced at your phone just before bed, noticed an unread email, read said email, and spent the next several hours stressing over its contents? Have you ever done the same first thing in the morning, after dinner, or while killing time over the weekend? If so, there’s an easy way to create a better work-life balance for yourself: Stop doing that.
Another important aspect of recovery is avoiding continued exposure to the cause of your stress. As Sonnentag and Fritz write: “It is an important precondition for recovery that the functional systems taxed during work will not be called upon any longer.” In other words, every time you check in on work when you’re not supposed to be working, you’re inhibiting your ability to relax, recover, and detach from work.
If calls and texts on your work phone are a problem, you can use your phone’s do not disturb feature to set a schedule for when you want all incoming notifications to be silenced. If it’s Slack that draws you back into work, you can set up a do-not-disturb schedule there, too.
Talk to your boss about your personal goals
Google’s people analytics team recommends another strategy they call the “One Simple Thing” goal-setting technique. An employee shares a personal goal–something like “I won’t read work emails at home”–with their boss. The employee’s boss then becomes accountable for holding the employee to that goal.
And while Google’s people analytics team says they haven’t been able to measure the success of the technique, other studies show that sharing personal goals with your boss can be beneficial for both you and the company you work for.
The idea of sharing your personal goals–and your efforts to achieve work-life balance–with your boss may sound like an uncomfortable and unprofessional conversation, but there’s value in having it. Your boss may be able to support you in your efforts to leave work at work by holding you accountable for working on the weekends, helping you identify tasks you really shouldn’t be completing, or assisting you in brainstorming ways to delegate and share your workload.
And if your boss isn’t on board with helping you achieve your goals, it may be a sign that it’s not just your personality that’s creating your work-life imbalance. It might be time to look for a new job.
Make a to-do list for tomorrow at the end of every day
In his book The Organized Mind, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains that when we’re trying to remember something, our brains put that information into a “rehearsal loop” that seeks to regularly remind us of that task.
If you leave work for the day with a brain full of tasks that you need to complete tomorrow or next week, your brain will constantly cycle back to those tasks while you’re away from work. And since part of psychological detachment requires that we distance ourselves from thoughts about work, that rehearsal loop works against our ability to achieve work-life balance.
One strategy for closing the rehearsal loop and leaving work tasks at work: Spend five to 15 minutes at the end of every day writing down the things you need to work on the next day and/or week. Even something as simple as adding tasks to a list in a to-do app can help you leave your thoughts about those tasks behind. But there’s also evidence that writing a more detailed and reflective journal entry could be worthwhile, too.
Social psychologist James W. Pennebaker says that “keeping a journal helps to organize an event in our mind. When we do that, our working memory improves, since our brains are freed from the enormously taxing job of processing that experience.”
So by taking time at the end of your workday to reflect on the day’s events, process and order those events in your mind, and writing down what you need to take care of the next time you’re at work, you can essentially empty your mind of thoughts about work before you head home for the day.
Achieving work-life balance when it’s not in your nature to do so
Sometimes, there’s a clear reason why you haven’t achieved a balance between work and life. If your job requires you to travel constantly, your boss demands that you work overtime regularly, or you’re forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, those are obvious causes of your work-life imbalance.
But if those things aren’t the case, it may just be in your nature to blur the lines between work and life. No job or career change can fix that for you. Instead, you have to make a focused effort to mimic segregators–to draw clear lines between work life and home life–so your body and brain can relax, recover, and create more psychological distance between the two activities.