By:Andrew Mellen, Chief Organizing Expert

There’s a conversation going on about the distinction between work/life balance and work/life integration, so let’s take a look at both concepts and see which one makes more sense and gets us less stress and more free time in our lives.

work-life balance
The achievement of equality between time spent working and one’s personal life.

work-life integration
To bring together the elements of work life and home life into a seamless, compatible way of being, without conflict or disharmony.

For me, trying to achieve work/life balance often feels like being pulled in multiple directions at once.

Which is funny, since the idea of balance conjures up an image of a teeter-totter—something with two sides, not seven or ten!

But for me, it isn’t as simple as work on one side and life on the other.

Both my work and my personal life are many-faceted, and I’m guessing that may be true for you as well.

And while everything tugging on you may be high-priority values such as:

  • work and productivity
  • time with friends and family
  • physical and emotional self-care
  • continuing education and development
  • community participation and giving back
  • spiritual practices and renewal
  • creative expression

It’s often overwhelming to figure out which activities and pursuits will get your attention first.

It’s hard not to think that “work/life balance”  means we’ll somehow be able to give them all equal, or at least the right amount of attention.
But when was the last time you were able to give anything all of the attention you wanted to?
The fact is, we can always imagine far more than we can do. We have unlimited imaginations, but only so many appendages. We’re finite (at least on this plane!).

That’s our limitation, but it’s also a gift.
Remember when you were a kid and wanted to be a ballerina one week, and a fire chief the next?
When we grow up and commit ourselves to something or some things, we let go of other things we could possibly be or do, and develop and hone the skills of being amazingly good at a few of them.

A friend of mine recently had a health scare, and after she got past the shock, she discovered how motivated you become when you find out you may have less time than you thought you did.

I talk about this often in workshops. In those moments, you get clear on what’s important very quickly.

What if we lived every day with that level of clarity, but it didn’t take a crisis to bring us there?
With limited time and energy, it’s easier to see that procrastination isn’t just a bad habit—it’s a waste of the only resource we cannot replace—our time.

An adjunct to that is our need. Need gets a bad rap, but human beings need each other—we’re social creatures.

Recognizing our need coupled with our limitations forces us outside of our comfort zone in order to seek help. Remember the old saying “many hands makes light work?”

It’s usually more efficient to work with our friends, family or colleagues in groups, and make use of each other’s strengths, but even when it isn’t, the time passes more sweetly.

Besides, if we had no limits, how would we know love? Our limitations give our loved ones a chance to show us how much they love us.
So, we have limitations and those limitations help us focus. And trying to balance them seems to actually keep us off-kilter.

What if we try integrating our needs and strengths, responsibilities and priorities, instead?

Like combining ingredients for a batter, you may want to start out slowly, combining two things together at first, before adding the third, and so on, in order to produce the smoothest results—literally and figuratively.
And as you integrate the priorities of your life, you’ll get even clearer on what is essential and what might be a distraction or something you could let go of.

A friend of mind doesn’t believe there is ever a day off from “life,” so he takes no down time. But he manages to incorporate productivity, friends, family, art, relaxation and intimacy into each day.
While I agree with being active and engaged every day, I also believe in and want real down time—time to get away from tasking.

So this month, when you’re taking some time to set your priorities for the fall, consider this:

When can you say no at work when someone asks to overburden your workload?
Where can you give more of your time to fewer things, with greater focus?

Make deeper commitments to things that matter, and let go of things that don’t.
In most cultures where people work long hours, they actually expect things like: naps, family phone calls, doctor visits, lunches with friends, births, deaths, weddings—all the life-cycle events, small and large, that take place during the day that we might view as intrusions here.

If you’re lucky enough to work for a few well-funded tech companies, you may get a break room with sofas and catered organic meals, but for most of us, how can we integrate our lives with our time at work … and vice versa?
Perhaps we need to raise the question with management and our colleagues of how we can be our most productive and not feel cut off from the reason we’re working in the first place—to be self-sustaining and contributing members of our lives, our families and our communities.

Why not continue this exploration and try out work/life integration. It’s not the perfect solution but that may be part of the point.

We could probably be done with perfection.

Let’s aim for a meaningful and integrated life, rather than a perfect one.