Why Work-Life Integration is a Better Goal Than Work-Life Balance

June 10, 2015

Everyone’s always talking about the importance of work-life balance — and how elusive it can be.

But what if our conversations around work-life balance were all misguided? What if we started talking about work-life integration instead?

That’s how productivity blogger Laura Vanderkam approaches it, and her take really resonates with me. Rather than forcing our workday to fit in a 9-to-5 box (or, more likely, 9-to-7) and make life go around work, she says we should integrate the two, making time for life even in the middle of the day, and, if necessary, working at non-traditional hours to make up for it.

How I mix life with work

While this approach is particularly useful for women who are building both a career and a family, I lean on it daily. Except, until reading Laura’s blog posts and articles on work-life integration, I felt kind of guilty about it.

I often take an exercise break in the middle of the day, for example, to go on a bike ride or take a yoga class. And some afternoons I’ll spend a few hours watching my nephew or running an errand, rather than running my content marketing business or writing an ebook. My work doesn’t go undone because of these life breaks, I simply do it at other times, putting in a few hours in the evening or on the weekend, whatever it takes to get everything done.

Finding work-life balance, Harper's Ferry

A rainbow at Harper’s Ferry. Sometimes I take a gorgeous weekday off to go hiking, and work a rainy Saturday instead.

But often, I feel like I should be working rather than out on my bike or walking home from the grocery store. This is silly, of course, because that mid-day exercise break makes sense for so many reasons: it helps me be more productive when I am working, it keeps me healthy and sane, and it means I can take advantage of daylight hours for outdoor activities and work inside when it’s cold, rainy or dark. It kind of amazes me, to be honest, that more workplaces aren’t structured in this way, because it helps people do their best work.

While a lot of the pressure I put on myself comes from within, some of it stems from the people around me, too. Some people comment on how I’m lucky to be able to arrange my day the way that suits me, while others say I work too much when they see me putting in hours in the evening or over the weekend. What they don’t realize is I’m not working those odd hours in addition to weekdays; I’m working them so I can spend some of my weekday hours on life instead.

Laura addresses this in a piece for Fortune on women who manage big jobs while raising big families. Her advice:

Don’t hold to certain notions of what can be work time and what can’t be. Jenny Dearborn takes calls from 5-7 a.m. many days, “in my bathrobe, thankfully never telepresence.” She then hangs out with her kids before work. She also works at night after the kids go to bed. These hours that bookend the day enable her to collaborate with people around the world, yet still have family breakfast and dinner many days.

When work-life integration works best

While integrating life into work isn’t an option for everyone — and it is easier if you’re a freelancer or otherwise self-employed — it’s probably more possible than you think, even if you’re at a traditional job.

At my last day job, I used to go running on my lunch break, which my boss supported so long as I got my work done on time — and I often added an extra half hour to the end of my day to show I was making that happen. (Working late doesn’t make you more productive, but some bosses like to have that face time.) It can be difficult to finagle this flexibility when you’re early in your career and still proving yourself, but once you have a few years of experience under your belt and have demonstrated your value in the workplace, many companies and bosses will offer some leeway to integrate life into your workday so long as you keep doing an awesome job.

Here’s an example from Laura’s Fortune article. It showcases a woman in a power position, but depending on where you work, I think even early-career professionals could gain some flexibility with a similar approach:

Lisa Lacasse is the vice president for strategy and operations at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. She also has four teenagers. “I just do everything all the time,” she says. “I’ll go to work and spend 20 minutes during downtime finalizing logistics for summer camp.” She works the hours that work for her, coming in a little later if she’s got a school event, and then making up the time elsewhere.

“I’ve never asked permission for the flexibility of my job,” she says. In life, it’s sometimes better to ask for forgiveness, which may not be necessary if you do good work. “I think women in particular need to feel more empowered to do that,” she says. “No one ever told me to do it, I just did.”

Why work-life integration doesn’t work for everyone

This approach does have a downside, and it’s why some people simply can’t make it work for them, even if their job offers the opportunity to do so. When you don’t draw a distinct line between work and life, you often ending up multi-tasking, or at least switching frequently from one task to another. And many productivity experts say multi-tasking doesn’t really work.

You also have to be disciplined to succeed — though that applies to so many of the things I write about. If you don’t have the inner will to return to the work you left before driving your daughter to soccer practice, you probably shouldn’t interrupt your day at all. You have to be able to deal with so-called distractions (otherwise known as life) and quickly get back on task when it’s time to do so.

This is something I’ll be thinking about a lot over the next few months, in part because I just picked up Laura’s new book, I Know How She Does It. I’ve already read the first 50 pages, and I love her positive spin on the conversation around “having it all.” While no one has the perfect life, she writes, many of us are able to juggle career and family, especially if we have our priorities in line and a few time-management strategies under our belt.

“It is, in short, about how to enjoy and make the most of your time, by which I mean investing as much as you wish in everything that matters: work, family, community, leisure,” she writes. And this is the part I want to scream from the rooftops: “It is about celebrating abundance rather than lamenting choices or claiming that no one can have it all.”

What works better for you: drawing a distinct line between work and life, or integrating the two?

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12 Replies to “Why Work-Life Integration is a Better Goal Than Work-Life Balance”

  • Lisa Rowan says:

    Yes! “I do everything all the time.” I’m usually mixing work and other stuff pretty seamlessly – and it all gets done. Now, if I could just get better at putting the devices DOWN for an hour or two each day…

    • Alexis Grant says:

      I think that’s kind of the problem with this… It can be hard to unplug, if you’re so used to multi-tasking. But that’s such an important component, too! I’m working on it all the time…

  • Amy Wright says:

    Thank you, Alexis! I had not seen Laura’s work and am now adding it to my summer reading list. I too feel guilt when I shuffle my schedule to accommodate life, but it truly makes no sense as long as I meet my obligations on time. The concept that 9-5 is the only acceptable schedule is dated, yet we still struggle to shake it. I appreciate the fresh perspective.

  • Sarah says:

    This is exactly my life! Like you, I integrate my work into my life, yet I feel guilty for doing so. I feel like I should have set hours and a set schedule, just like everyone else. As a mom of two toddlers and a freelancer, though, I work when the time is right. Sometimes that’s early in the morning, sometimes it’s at night and most often it’s during their nap time or while they’re at daycare.

    I love this approach / thought process! Thank you for sharing!

  • Lisa McKay says:

    TOTAL integration all the way (@just moved to a disaster zone with two little children and a humanitarian worker husband while also trying to stay sane and get stuff done.com).

  • Allison says:

    I love this idea and think I’d be a lot happier and more productive if I could apply it more — but I run into an issue where my husband still works a traditional 8-5 job (plus a commute that makes it more like 7-6) and I feel super guilty about still working when he’s home — when I feel like we should be enjoying dinner and spending time together.

  • Chiereme says:

    This is an approach I am really excited to implement once I start my freelance business. As women, we worry so much about what to choose, but this article is proof that with careful planning and practiced discipline, life and all it has to offer is more than doable!

  • Thomas James says:

    A good explanation for those who tries on keeping their time for the Family or personal. Everything should be tackled on well with the priorities in it. Wish this could easily be hone up by anyone who works with more time than their selves. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Sallie Keys says:

    I couldn’t agree more! One of the best things about being self-employed is setting your own schedule and being able to take breaks and go catch that sunset or that rainbow, especially if you live in a great area like Harper’s Ferry! (By the way, that pic is what caught my eye. I just moved to the area and you’re right – it’s beautiful here!) And your comment about abundance – that’s my specialty – helping clients create more of it in their lives, and that’s exactly what it’s all about.. the entire picture of your life.

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