- Please Stop Calling it Work-Life Balance
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July 2, 2024

A piercing cry jolted me awake at 3 AM. My teenage daughter was having another panic attack. For the next two hours, I sat with her, reassuring her. But my mind drifted to the looming challenge ahead, leading an important two-day workshop for my biggest client in just a few hours.

I stayed up late fine-tuning my presentation, planning on eight hours of sleep. Instead, I got barely three and a half, leaving me exhausted and worried for my daughter and the workshop. In the dim light of dawn, weary and anxious, I realized "work-life balance" is a comforting illusion. Life is messy and unpredictable, demanding our attention at inconvenient times.

A Balancing Problem

The concept of work-life balance is flawed.

It suggests work and life are separate, competing entities, often with work winning. This outdated notion doesn't reflect the reality of our "always-on" world. Think about it; when was the last time you went a full day without checking work emails on your personal phone? Or chatted with a family member during office hours? The lines between our professional and personal lives have become increasingly blurred, especially with remote work and constant connectivity.

Striving for perfect balance often leads to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. We chastise ourselves for answering work calls during family dinner, then feel equally bad about leaving the office early for a child's soccer game. This constant tug-of-war is exhausting and ultimately unproductive. Instead of futilely separating work and life into neat, tidy boxes, let's try work-life integration.

Is this a matter of semantics? No, work-life integration acknowledges that these aspects of our lives are deeply interlaced. It's about finding ways to blend our professional and personal responsibilities in an authentic and fulfilling way.

Dr. Stewart Friedman, a professor at Wharton School and author of "Leading the Life You Want," has pioneered this field. His research shows that individuals who successfully integrate different aspects of their lives, work, family, community, and self—experience greater satisfaction and performance in all areas. Friedman writes, "The idea that 'work' competes with 'life' ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity. It separates work from the rest of our lives as if work were not part of our lives."

Four things that have helped me figure out this integration are:

On-Call vs. Off-Grid - I define my time differently now. I let my clients and my family know if I'm Off-Grid or On-Call. While I try to finish meaningful work by 2 p.m., I'm On-Call until 5:30, meaning I give mixed attention to both work and home life. After 7 p.m., I set the expectation that I'll be Off-Grid. This means my full attention is on family and my other endeavors.

Wise use of technology - Technology should serve you, not control you. If you are traveling on vacation but want to stay somewhat connected, leave the laptop at home and only bring technology that let's you minimally work. For instance, if I have to do any long-form writing I prefer to bring my laptop rather than the iPad. The iPad will allow me to do the work but the friction of the device is enough to stop me from going deep into the work.

For those with Apple devices, set a Focus mode and tweak your apps and calls accordingly. My phone convert to Personal Time mode after 5:30 pm; effectively stopping outside calls not already in my contact list. It also hides most of my work apps, showing only apps like Weather, Notes, Music and Safari.

Open communication - Be transparent with colleagues, clients, and family about your approach. Setting clear expectations prevents misunderstandings. One of the best approaches to this was by Tom Clark of the MetroDenver EDC. He would give his entire team a "Working with Tom" document that spelled out his work expectations, it would have been awesome to see non-work stuff listed here also.

Accept imperfection - Understand that things will sometimes feel out of balance. Focus on creating a sustainable lifestyle over time, not perfect daily harmony. Integration takes times, sometimes years to get right. Find the pace that works best for you.

Last month, my niece asked me to officiate her wedding in Philadelphia, a full week's commitment given the travel and pre-wedding events. Instead of agonizing over missing client meetings and falling behind on work, I simply informed my clients that I'd be away and off-grid for a family wedding. Yes I had a laptop and I had down time. I *could* attend their meetings virtually, but I wanted to be focused on my family instead. Free from guilt, I was fully present for my family during the week away. I bonded with relatives I hadn't seen in years and delivered a heartfelt ceremony.

Our Deeply Held Misconceptions

In my years of coaching executive teams, I've encountered a pervasive myth that working longer hours inevitably leads to greater success. This belief is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it's almost treated as gospel. But here's the truth: virtually no data supports this.

Sure, we've all heard stories about the Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of the world, burning the midnight oil on their way to success. Sleeping under their desks, waking up on the factory floor to show their commitment to work. But for every Musk or Jobs, there are thousands of others working themselves to the bone without achieving similar results. Long hours don't guarantee success, they often just guarantee burnout.

In a survey from Deloitte, "77% of Americans who work full-time have experienced burnout at their jobs," and nearly 94% of the service professionals in America work more than 50 hours per week. Yet, what I've observed among truly successful individuals is quite different:

1. They prioritize quality over quantity. It's not about how many hours they log, but the value they create in those hours.

2. They find meaning in their work. When you're interested in what you do, the lines between work and life naturally blur - in a good way.

3. They focus on their strengths and collaborate effectively. By doing what they do best and partnering with others who complement their skills, they achieve more without necessarily working more.

4. They view work-life integration as an ongoing process, not a fixed state. They regularly reassess and adjust their approach, keeping themselves in check.

Guiding executive teams to this realization isn't easy. I remember a CEO who initially dismissed the idea of work-life integration as a lack of commitment. A CFO at another firm worried it would tank productivity. These reactions underscored a crucial lesson: this isn't just about personal choices, it's about shifting an entire cultural mindset.

To drive this change, leaders need to walk the talk. They must demonstrate that it's okay, even beneficial, to have a flexible schedule or take time for personal needs. This often means confronting long-standing company cultures head-on.

The change isn't always smooth, but the payoff is immense. Teams become more innovative, more engaged, and ultimately more productive. Not because they're working more hours, but because they're working smarter and with greater satisfaction.

Remember that success isn't about the number of hours worked. It's about the impact we make, the value we create, and the lives we lead - both in and out of the office; it's about our output. That's the true measure of success in the age of work-life integration.

author avatar
George Morris
I use my 20+ years of entrepreneurial experience and training to coach businesses on scaling up rapidly using Verne Harnish's Scaling Up framework. By doing so, my clients are more efficient and profitable, giving them the ability to make bigger impacts in the world. I deeply believe entrepreneurs are the best equipped to be the vehicle for meaningful change, and in the decade ahead, we'll see a substantial shift in how business is done. We'll move to a model where company purpose, impact, curiosity, and team health will be differentiators in overall business success. As Simon Sinek has pointed out, the finite games are the legacy of the past; we're moving to an infinite game.