It’s been about forty years since the term work-life balance was first used. Since then, it has been used broadly to refer to everything from the need for more leisure or family time to self-care.
Critics of the term say that it creates an artificial separation between work and life, as if work were not a part of life. Others say it incorrectly implies a zero-sum equation in which life loses out while you’re working, and vice versa.
In response, the concept of work-life integration has become more popular in recent years. But what, exactly, does it mean, and is it a helpful framework to aspire to?
How work-life integration differs from work-life balance
According to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, work-life integration is “an approach that creates more synergies between all areas that define ‘life’: work, home/family, community, personal well-being, and health.”
This approach emphasizes gentle pivots rather than hard boundaries between different areas of life. A practitioner of work-life integration might choose to have breakfast with the family and drop off the kids at school, then work from 9am to noon, then eat lunch and go to the gym, then attend a work meeting in the afternoon, then pick up the kids and make dinner, and respond to emails for a couple hours before bedtime.
For professionals who have the ability to shape their own workday, the flexibility offered by work-life integration is ideal. For those who are juggling kids, elderly parents, and other activities, it seems like the best way to have and do it all.
Why work-life integration is not a perfect solution
But there can be a slippery slope to work-life integration, especially for entrepreneurs. When your to-do list seems endless, you may be tempted to fill every nook and cranny of life with work without giving your health, community, and family the same level of prioritization.
You could end up integrating work into every area of your life without integrating much of life into your workday. Or you may find yourself constantly thinking about work even when you want to pay attention to others priorities. Why is this the case?
Our work responsibilities tend to feel far more urgent than the everyday needs of our loved ones or ourselves. As Stephen Covey writes in his classic First Things First, “Some of us get so used to the adrenaline rush of handling crises that we become dependent on it for a sense of excitement and energy.”
If we are addicted to the urgent, those pressing things will always seize our attention first. We all default to paying attention to our jobs first–unless we intentionally choose to do otherwise.
How to make it work for you
So how can you make work-life integration truly work for you? Here are three simple suggestions:
1. Create a schedule.
To ensure that you are truly reserving time in your day to focus on priorities outside of work, put these things in your calendar. Though it may feel strange to formally schedule activities like “family dinner” or “workout at the gym,” doing so will make it far more likely that these activities actually happen.
2. Coordinate with your significant other and family.
If you have a partner, make sure that your schedule complements his or hers, and that you are prioritizing the greatest needs of your family. Work-life integration should make your family life richer and smoother, not harder.
3. Remain committed to some boundaries.
Even the most practiced integrator of work and life needs time to truly unplug from job responsibilities. Your mind and body need rest from work on a regular basis in order to recharge. Set aside time each day and week to block out thoughts of work and focus exclusively on the people and activities that matter most to you.
We all want our lives to be richly filled with meaningful work and relationships. Work-life integration, just like work-life balance, is a helpful framework to help us do this, but the secret to prioritizing what we value most is in the execution.
None of us will do this perfectly, but with practice, we can get a little closer to trying to have it all.