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Work/Life Integration

handsEvery summer growing up, some close friends who lived in Washington D.C. spent a month or two with their mother/grandmother in rural Wisconsin.  Their grandmother lived right next door to us, so this arrangement created an amazing extended family for my parents and sisters and me; as such, we all became intimately aware of our similarities, differences, and values.  I always had a deep relationship with the dad from the other family, Bill, who loved taking about things I was interested in — ideas and patterns and travel and what the future might be like.  But despite liking him a lot, there were a few things I didn’t understand about Bill.  He would spend hours sitting with his laptop in an inner tube in the lake on a sunny day (risky, I know)…he would take phone calls at all hours of the day and night…he would bounce book ideas off of his kids during dinner…he seemed to always be working.  This seemed weird to me because I thought he was on vacation with his family, and in the world I knew then, work was work and life was life.  Looking back, I realize Bill may simply have been ahead of his time.

What Bill was doing was integrating his work and his life (some people also call this work/life blend) versus balancing it.  He realized that ideally, we don’t have a “work life” and a “personal life;” we simply have “a life.”  And integrating versus separating the two may actually reduce much of the noise that striving for balance creates, giving us more energy to do, make and be more.  This idea of work/life integration was relatively untouched in the media when he was doing it (in the ‘80’s and ’90’s), but between now and then, it has not only entered the public dialogue, but it has quickly and unavoidably become our reality.  As technology enables us to work anywhere and anytime, I’d argue that integration is the only way forward.  While I’m optimistic about what this means, I think we have a lot to do before it’s actually working for most of us and the companies we work with.

As a first step (preaching before we practice), the discussion about integration is afoot.  A quick google search came up with a flurry of media activity about work/life integration (versus separation or balance) about a year ago, when Craig Chappelow, a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership, wrote an article about it for Fast Company. Chappelow’s assertion is quite simple: life satisfaction begins with a better understanding of oneself – personality, self-identity, and the degree of control a person has over his/her work and family lives.  To help people gain this understanding, the Center for Creative Leadership has a self-assessment tool that buckets test takers into Integrators  (work-first integrators allow work to interrupt family, family-first integrators allow family to interrupt work), Separators (who separate work and family), and Cyclers (who might switch back and forth between periods of integration and separation).

Anchoring on your perceived ability to control boundaries between work and family makes sense to me and is consistent with Dan Pink’s Autonomy-Mastery-Purpose framework for motivation, which I think is spot on.  Autonomy to direct one’s own life, time, and priorities is absolutely critical to integration (integration doesn’t really work when your boss demands that you’re in the office every day from 6-6).  But I think there is something even more foundational that autonomy: Purpose (I’m defining purpose as being part of something bigger than you are; being clear and intentional about what your mission in life is).  Why purpose?  The way I see it, a clear and direct purpose breeds authenticity (we operate the same way when we’re working as when we’re not)…and the ability to be fully authentic opens up a world where work and family lives blend together.  In Hinduism and Buddhism, this concept of “essential quality or character,” everywhere and all the time, is called dharma.

This train of thought could get very philosophical very quickly, so I’m going to try to keep it practical. Let’s look at a few examples of how purpose underpins integration:

  • A farmer’s purpose might be “to nourish her family and her community.”  She can live her purpose working the fields (traditional “work”), cooking/eating dinner with her friends (traditional “life”), and advocating for pesticide-free living (traditional “volunteer work”).  The reality is, this all bleeds together…one purpose unifies all of her activity, making it easier to take time away from one and pour it into another.
  • A dad’s purpose might be simply “to bring joy to the world around him.”  He can live his purpose by playing in the sandbox with his kids (traditional “life”), producing comedic films (traditional “work”), bringing his kids to the set, and working on edits at home.
  • A writer’s purpose might be “to help people discover new things.”  She may feel like writing is the best way to live her purpose, and she may choose to do that all the time….and that’s OK.  For her, writing likely doesn’t feel like “work;” rather, it is what defines her life.

If a person’s purpose is clear and strong, work likely doesn’t feel like “work;” it feels like part of “life.” And if work is energizing and fulfilling, why not work every day…why shouldn’t the weekends and weekdays blend together?  Think about the farmers and doctors who lived and worked a century ago….there was much less separation than there is today, and I would argue, just as much or even more fulfillment.

So all of this sounds great in theory, but how does work/life integration really work on the ground today?  I live and work in Silicon Valley, where the 8-hour day is a thing of the past….where parents log onto their computers after their kids go to bed and 20-somethings work off their hangovers on Saturday mornings.  And I’ve come around to think this is just fine, taking the point-of-view that life and work are not defined by hours, they’re defined by intention.  If people have a clear sense of purpose and feel the best way they can live their personal mission is through writing code, they should go for it…until a day comes when they feel differently.  And if the best way for someone to fulfill their personal mission is to write less code and make more play-do, that makes sense too.

I personally, am on the road to integration, but I’m not there yet (this post is a first attempt to even sort out my thinking on this “out loud”).  I’m bought into the concept, but I don’t feel like I’m living a purpose-driven life 24-7.  If you’re in the same boat, here are some of the questions I regularly ask myself to help shift away from separation and toward integration:

  • What is my identity (i.e., mom, wife, consultant, fitness fanatic, etc), and how can I ensure this identity shines through in every sphere of my life?  When someone asks me what I “do,” what is the most authentic (albeit potentially complex) answer?
  • Can I explain my work to my kids (who are 4 and 2) in terms they understand?  If not, it probably means it’s not yet closely enough linked with my purpose.
  • What avenues do I have to fulfill my purpose (work, writing, friends, family, volunteering etc), and how can I align my time with those avenues in a way that meets my financial and structural needs?
  • What do I need in my life, what am I trying to optimize for, and what things can fall away if/when life feels too full? I list these things out as “anchors,” “optimizers,” and “things I can let go.”

Integration is not easy, and there are some jobs that make it very difficult (i.e., shift jobs, jobs with low autonomy, etc).  And I’m well aware that it’s a luxury to have the option of integration versus separation.  But with this luxury comes responsibility, and I firmly believe that if we all could operate from a foundation of purpose, we would have a much larger amount of energy to pour into the people around us.  Is this indeed true?  I wish I could ask Bill, but he sadly died of cancer a few years ago.  But maybe the proof is in the pudding – his kids still live the values he taught them, his books and legacy live on, and here I am writing about him as a man who prototyped the future.

What do you think?  Is integration something you want to strive for in your life?  If so, can you think of someone who is great at work/life integration?  What can you learn from him/her?  And if you’re a master at this, what can you share with all of us who are still on our journeys?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very interesting! The challenge for some of us “workaholics” is that our work exerts a pull on us–complex, demanding, and unremitting–that isn’t matched by other parts of our world, but that also doesn’t fulfill all our needs. In that case we need to consciously plan to devote time and energy to other things and to remember to be present on those occasions, rather than preoccupied. Another thought: we need to ask others in our lives how they perceive our focus and integration as a reality check. Thanks for the post!

    January 16, 2013
    • Thanks for the comment, Lisa! Your feedback about the workaholic case is great, and yes, it doesn’t fit neatly into the concept of integration. I’m still working out my thoughts about integration in general, so your story and thought (asking others about perception) are really helpful!

      January 22, 2013
  2. ebriceno #

    Great food for thought, thanks Brynn! I’m not sure how I would categorize myself. On one hand I feel that I’m authentic at work and life (which wasn’t the case in prior careers), and that this brings integration of self across time/space. On the other hand I like to get into the ‘flow’ of doing one thing at a time, so even within work or life I separate activities so I’m only doing one conscious thing at a time (and depending on the characteristics of that activity, I place them in different times of my day/week) – that makes me more productive and mindful. So I don’t know whether I ‘separate’ things (into little chunks, not two big buckets), or ‘integrate’ different elements of my life by being my same self pursuing the same purpose throughout. Good food for thought…

    I do look forward to integrating different aspects of life in our upcoming walk outdoors – thanks for letting me bring Rosie! 🙂

    January 16, 2013
  3. Liz S. #

    I’ve been working on successfully integrating my work/life ever since I became an independent consultant over 8 years ago. Now I can’t imagine working any other way. One important lesson I learned was to not work in the evenings when my daughter is home — no phone calls, no emails, no checking my iPhone. This work-free time has dramatically increased the quality of my relationship with my daughter as she’s no longer competing for my attention. And of course my work hasn’t suffered at all.

    January 24, 2013

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