Work vs. Life: Balance, Integration and Alignment

Call it an occupational hazard, but I often find myself having conversations -- with clients, with friends, with family, and with strangers on airplanes -- about work-life balance. Most folks I talk to seem to believe it's impossible.
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woman walking on a rope over manhattan
woman walking on a rope over manhattan

Call it an occupational hazard, but I often find myself having conversations -- with clients, with friends, with family, and with strangers on airplanes -- about work-life balance. Most folks I talk to seem to believe it's impossible. "There are only so many hours in a day," they say. "My work is never done," they say. "I'm on the clock 24/7," they say. And dude, I can totally relate to all of that.

There's no doubt about it -- professional jobs today demand more of us than they did of our parents. There are enough things to do and enough people expecting us to do them at all hours that, if we didn't occasionally pass out from exhaustion, we could literally work nonstop for as long as our laptop batteries hold out, and then a little more on our phones and tablets. How are we ever going to find anything like balance when the scales are so tipped against us?

Yep, I get it. I've beat my head against that same unyielding baloney stone plenty. But what if the trouble isn't the circumstances of our professional lives and our personal lives (what we imprecisely call "work" and "life), but the metaphors and mental models we apply to those circumstances? What if a different paradigm or a different metaphor could reveal options we hadn't even considered? I believe that's possible. In fact, I know it's possible. But first, let's understand the models we're working with.

What is work? What is life?
Don't worry; I'm not trying to get all abstract and philosophical. It's just that the existing paradigms tend to use the dichotomy of "work" and "life," so before we look at the paradigms themselves, we need to define these terms with a little more precision.

When we say, "work," what do we mean? We typically mean the thing we do for money. We sometimes mean, as Mark Twain put it, the thing we are obliged to do. At other times, we mean the thing we're called to do. And occasionally, we mean the thing we do that makes us who we are. Whether it's a job, a career, or a calling, "work" is the thing that constitutes our professional life.

Then what do we mean by "life?" Typically, we mean everything outside of our professional life. Life is our family, our friends, our community, and the worlds that exist within our bodies and minds. It's parenting, hobbies, passions, clubs, churches, volunteer work, dating, hanging out, a couple beers, karaoke, drugs, whatever floats your boat. Life is the thing we do when we're not working.

If we stick to those definitions, we're on pretty safe ground. On the other hand, if we make the mistake of believing that work is something separate from our actual lives -- if we start to think of our work and our lives as opposites (or oppositional) -- we can get ourselves into pretty deep trouble. Let's not forget, as we explore the work-life paradigms we have to work with, that work is an integral part of a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life. Let's agree that when we say, "work," we mean "professional life," and when we say, "life," we mean everything else. Groovy? Good. Let's get on with the options.

Work-life paradigms and mental models
There are three primary paradigms (and endless variations on them) for thinking about the work-life problem. Let's look at what each one is, what their assumptions are, what's good about them, what's dangerous about them, and how to make each of them work for you.

Work-life balance
Without a doubt, this is the most common paradigm for thinking about how our professional and personal lives intersect. In fact, for many people, it's the only one.
  • Assumptions: Life is a zero-sum game, and time is how we keep score. Whatever time you put into work leaves less time to put into non-work priorities, and vice versa. Tradeoffs and compromises are the path to a life that feels "balanced."

  • Strengths: There's an appealing pragmatism to the idea that we all have 1,440 minutes in a day, and that we have to choose how to spend them wisely because each minute can really only be occupied with one task or activity (we'll save the problem of multitasking for another article).
  • Pitfalls: This one makes folks really prone to either-or thinking -- an approach that leads to a lot of internal debates that sound like the 1991 hip-hop hit, "The Choice Is Yours," by Black Sheep: "You can get with this/Or you can get with that." I call this "or" thinking, and it presents a pretty limited set of options for managing our lives and achieving all that we hope to.
  • How to make it work: Success with the work-life balance paradigm requires a few things. First, you'll need to put up some pretty solid boundaries between that work stuff and that non-work stuff, so that one doesn't bleed into the other, upsetting that whole balance thing. Second, you have to get very, very good at time management, so that you can carve your life up into segments that allow you to apportion those 1,440 minutes in just the right way. And last, you have to abandon the idea that "balance," in this case, is a noun, and instead, think of it as a verb. The gerund form (noun) should be "work-life balancing." Dig? OK, next one.
  • Work-life integration
    This one has gained a lot of ground in recent years. It's proponents say that the artificial boundaries we put up between our professional and personal lives are doing more harm than good, and that we'll do better if we blend the different domains of life together.
    • Assumptions: Rather than carving your life into little slices for each domain and each priority, work-life integration assumes that the better approach is to blur the lines and look for opportunities for synergy between and among the domains.

  • Strengths: Work-life integration views life -- and you -- as a whole that contains many interdependent parts. For people who naturally tend toward an integrator's style, this can lead to less stress and greater fulfillment. The interplay of life's various domains (work, community, family, etc.) creates a vast number of opportunities that might not have existed before and takes you far beyond the limitations of the zero-sum game.
  • Pitfalls: The primary danger of work-life integration comes for folks who are separators by nature (see this article for more on the different work-life styles), and for folks whose work can't be allowed to spill over into their personal lives (this is often true for those in social work, for example). Integration should be carefully designed (perhaps with the help of a professional) to avoid overwhelm.
  • How to make it work: Work-life integration requires an experimenter's approach. Identify opportunities for one or more domains of your life to complement one another, make the necessary tweaks to exploit those opportunities, and observe the results. You'll have to play with it a bit, but the rewards can be huge. This approach is pretty closely aligned with my "Life Is a Mashup" approach, explained briefly in this video.
  • Work-life alignment
    This one's the new kid on the block.

    No, not
    new kids. Work-life alignment is just late to the party, encouraging folks to look at all the domains of their lives -- the professional domain, the community domain, the family domain, and the alone-inside-your-body-and-mind domain -- as components that should all be aligned toward a common goal or purpose.
    • Assumptions: When you're clear about your values, priorities, and goals, you'll make decisions about work, parenting, community involvement, and all other life domains that are aligned with those values, priorities, and goals.

  • Strengths: Operating in all domains of life from a well-founded, juicy, chewy center of values, priorities, and goals makes all those little decisions we make in a day, in a week, in a month, or in a year a lot simpler. When we know ourselves, we know what choices will make us our best selves.
  • Pitfalls: Getting the necessary clarity takes serious work and sophistication (and probably some experienced and skilled assistance), and proceeding with a work-life alignment approach without doing the work can lead to bad decisions that defeat the purpose.
  • How to make it work: As alluded to above, you gotta do the work. Find someone to help you achieve the clarity you need of values, priorities, and goals, and then figure out how your professional life and personal life align with those. Make the necessary tweaks and, again, check for alignment. Keep the focus on that juicy, chewy center!
  • Which work-life paradigm is right for you?
    As you can see, there are a few different options for fitting together the disparate pieces of your life that currently seem to be at odds, pulling apart, and determined to stress you out. Only you can determine which one works for you. Whether you're a balancer, an integrator, or an aligner, the important thing is that you find a solution that makes work an integral part of your meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life. You might need some help, but it ain't rocket science. You can keep your head and your heart -- while keeping your job. Eventually, you'll have --- the right stuff.

    If you're looking for more clear-eyed, practical tips on how to keep your head and your heart while keeping your job (with minimal references to the New Kids on the Block), you might enjoy receiving my weekly newsletter. At a minimum, I'd be honored if you checked out my other articles and considered subscribing. You can also follow me on Twitter. Oh, and if you have something to add, please join the conversation in the comments!

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