Work-Life Balance vs. Work-Life Integration

Figuring out how to structure and maintain your professional and personal lives is tough. In the days of yore when most of us worked blue collar jobs with clearly delineated tasks and a regular eight hour shift it was a bit easier. That's not to say the work was easy (it usually wasn't) but at least there wasn't much of a question about what to do when you got there or much of an expectation that you'd be taking work home with you. Work has gotten decidedly more complex since that time.

If you're a typical knowledge worker you're likely faced with multiple forces that make your personal and professional lives come into conflict. The ubiquity of the smartphone and the constant stream of information, requests for your attention, and the expectation to be available can make work seem like the primary factor in our lives.

Work-Life Balance

One way to approach this conundrum is through the metaphor of balance. Like a seesaw with Your Professional Life on one end and Your Personal Life on the other, you try to make adjustments to each sector of your life in order to keep the seesaw balanced. This approach, work-life balance, places an emphasis on creating distinct lines between your life and your work and not allowing them to bleed into each other. By keeping them as separate as possible the idea is that you can spend the time away from work fully engaged with your family or hobbies and the time at work completely dialed into your job.

In practice, work-life balance often leaves a lot to be desired. For many, it's a framework for burnout because instead of removing items from both sides of the seesaw in order to keep it level they instead are constantly adding to both sides. The result is an unsustainable pace of life that ultimately leaves one side, work or personal, being overshadowed by the other. Additionally, the increase in remote work, mobile communication technology, and globalization means that work never really has to end. In a world that's constantly "on" it can be tough to keep work and personal life truly balanced.

Work-Life Integration

Another school of thought is that we shouldn't strive for balance between our work and personal lives, but for integration. Work-life integration argues that it's futile to try to separate areas of our lives into separate domains when we only get one life and can only be in one place (physically and mentally) at a time. Instead of trying to respond to others' expectations and balancing out our commitments to work and life, they argue we should start from an internal perspective and identify the values and goals that will allow us to create the type of integrated life we want to live.

In practice, work-life integration often ends up very heavy on the work component of the equation. When there are no lines between professional and personal life it can be a slippery slope toward being chained to your email during vacation, sneaking peeks at your phone during family time, and never creating a chance to rejuvenate. Doing work-life integration well requires an extremely high level of self-awareness, self-knowledge, and a willingness to reflect on how things are going and make changes if problems are beginning to emerge.

Which Is Best?

As an independent worker myself there are elements of both philosophies that I really like. In the work-life balance camp I really try to not let my work interfere with my personal life when it comes to spending time with loved ones and being present with them during non-work time. I like to do a shut down routine at the end of my work day that signifies I'm finished with work for the day, even though my office is in my house and it's easy for me to just bop over to my computer and keep working if I want to. I like creating a clear line between my work day and my free time whenever possible.

On the other hand, there are components of the work-life integration approach that really appeal to me as well. One way I fall into this camp is by keeping only one calendar that mixes personal and professional commitments. Since I can only be in one place at one time I think it makes sense to keep one calendar. If I were to maintain separate Personal and Work calendars I'd be much more likely to schedule conflicting activities. Another work-life integration idea that I fully endorse is the commitment to creating a job for myself where I'm able to utilize my strengths, apply my values, and where I can feel like what I do for a living is directly supportive of what I believe in as a person. With a work-life integration mindset I bring more of myself to my work every day than I might if I was always trying to keep distinct lines between who I am in my personal life and who I am in my professional life.

My experience leaves me with the conclusion that both a strict work-life balance and a strict work-life integration approaches are wrong. Instead, I'm doing my best to figure out which components of each philosophy I can mix together into my own life.

Every month I send out my best ideas to the Workologist Newsletter subscribers. You can sign up for it here and as a thank you you'll receive a copy of my e-book, Work Better.

Photo by takasuii