“There’s gotta be a better way.” Christine repeated that several times during our conversation. She feels out of balance between work and life. Even before being trapped in her house with life and work wedged into the same moment, she felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and frustrated with herself. She tried various time management tools and calendars to no avail, and still believes she can’t accomplish everything that work and life demands.
Christine’s current stress is an exacerbated instance of a pre-existing frustration of trying to maintain a balance of time between work and life. Unfortunately, balancing life and work is not possible. The concept of work-life balance based on time is obsolete and no longer applies to the age in which we live and work.
Allocating time between work and life is a zero-sum game; the more time work demands the less time is available for life. Before stay-at-home orders, work would invade evenings, weekends, vacations with insidious henchmen, like smartphones and remote access. Work routinely outweighs life. This imbalance of time can only be corrected with more time, but without a special DeLorean, we can’t get more time.
The reality is that the work-life relationship is not about time. It’s about energy. Christine is running out of energy, which is why she feels overwhelmed and burnt out. Time is not balanced between work and life, and she is burning through energy trying to correct for the imbalance. Instead of struggling trying to put more sand in the hourglass, she must use her energy in ways that recharge her and provide more energy.
An effective and practical approach to “balancing” work and life is to stop treating work and life as separate (and competing) segments, and to start treating work and life as integrated parts of a single whole. This is easier to envision when it’s non-discretionary, like now.
Work-life integration is when work and life share the same resources, the same space, the same priority, and – (gasp!) – even the same person. Integration enables us to be fluid in how we address work and life, and empowers us to invest our energy in the priorities we value the most. When we spend our energy giving to the priorities in work and life that are important to us, based on the value to us, our energy is continually replenished, allowing us to experience and do more. This energy is not caloric energy. It is the energy of how we show up for these activities. It is our passion; it is our engagement; and it is our sense of being present.
Unlike time, energy replenishes. When we spend our energy doing the things that are valuable to us in that moment, our energy is replenished. It’s an anabolic process. But, when we spend our energy on things we don’t value, there is no energy reward to recharge ourselves. It depletes us, and then we can’t show up as our best self for things that really matter. That’s a catabolic process.
When we use our energy based on time instead of value, there is no recharging process. This is why when the work-day is done and it’s time for life, Christine feels unable to show up in our best way. Her energy was not replenished.
Work-life integration does not allocate energy based on time. It’s an approach where we allocate our energy to the parts of work and life that we value, thus maintaining our energy. We can do this when we prioritize how we use our energy across work and life based on the value to us. To do this, we need to drop the two separate identities charade and adopt a single, cohesive sense of “self.” One person, one life, one set of priorities. As a single self, we consolidate work and life priorities into one vision, reflecting all the tasks, experiences, and milestones we value and intend to spend energy on.
Once Christine can see her priorities as a single list, it eliminates the need for division and the stress of trying to find balance. Now, she can focus on the items that she values and will recharge her. This way, her energy will be sustained and carry her through from one experience to the next. Now, the ability to shift smoothly between work and life requires agility and flexibility (but that’s someone else’s story).
Work-life integration ends the stress and tension of fighting for balance and allows us to invest our energy in rewarding and sustainable ways. We regenerate our energy when we spend our effort on the priorities that are important to us. The result is embracing the truth that we have enough replenishable energy to have the experiences and goals we want in work and life, without either suffering at the expense of the other.