Is “Balance” Enough? I Don’t Think So

By Mike Morrice

If a study was done to determine the most ubiquitous conversations among Canadians, my sense is the results would be some mix of: “How bad is this weather?”, “How likely is it that the Leafs will make the playoffs this year?” and “I’m so busy, how can I find some sort of work-life balance?”

In my coaching with members of the CoLab Network, this last question is a common theme: how can they seek to grow the impact of the organizations they lead, while also prioritizing life outside of work?

I can relate: there is no shortage of pressure related to the impact I seek to have through Sustainability CoLab, as well as enjoying the rest of what is good and fulfilling about life.  A line I remember sharing often while leading Sustainable Waterloo Region was that “I enjoy my work, to the extent that I don’t hurt myself with too much of it”. In summer 2012 I blogged about it here and here.

Like sustainability itself though, this pursuit of this so-called balance is a journey. Through my coaching at CoLab, I encourage the leaders I work with to consider new ways of thinking and to try new tactics as they progress along this journey; this blog post was inspired by these conversations.

Balance vs. Integration vs. Something More…

A recent edition of the Harvard Business Review featured “work/life balance” on the front page, complete with the prototypical elephant-balancing-on-an-obviously-undersized-ball graphic. And though the article does have some nuggets of good points I agree with, the overarching thesis was underwhelming:

For “senior executives” to achieve sufficient balance between work and life they must be more focused, and make more deliberate choices about which opportunities they should and shouldn’t pursue in both areas.

This is an unfortunate simplification of a complex challenge – not just for senior executives, but pretty much any person seeking to fulfill competing priorities. Ironically, only 10 pages later in the same magazine, Dr. Ellen Langer is quoted in an interview about mindfulness:

I also tell people about work/life integration, not balance. “Balance” suggests that the two are opposite and have nothing in common. But that’s not true…If you keep them separate, you don’t learn to transfer what you do successfully in one domain to the other.”

This ‘integration’ seems like what those I coach are working towards, though my sense is that this can be taken a step further still.

The Pursuit of ‘Wholeness’

With that in mind, here’s a completely unscientific hierarchy that has struck a chord with some of the leaders I work with:

(i.e. make deliberate choices between two silos: work & life)

Here, focus is placed on simply being deliberate about where your time is going. From the HBR article, suggested tactics include establishing what time family dinner will be and sticking to it like a client meeting, and reducing technology connectedness to ensure you can be fully present at work and at home.

My sense here is the goal is to feel like you are putting enough energy into these two distinct areas of your life. And while this is positive, having such a strong distinction can also be problematic. In my experience, I’ve found this type of thinking has led me to silo two different senses of self. For example, I found that I began to intentionally sign emails differently. From my personal email account, I found I often signed with a lowercase “mike”; whereas from my SWR or CoLab account, I always signed “Mike”. As I reflected on this, I even found I could assign different adjectives to these two distinct senses of self: “mike” would be “centered, healthy, grounded”, whereas “Mike” would be “confident, bold, risk taking”. And while in both cases these are positive traits in moderation, they didn’t necessarily transfer over between the silos I had created in my own head.

(i.e. encourage learning transfer between all areas of life)

Here the intention is to go a step further: while still continuing to be deliberate about where your time is going, the person-constructed silos of “work” and “life” are dropped. Instead, you’re encouraged to transfer learnings and personality traits between work and life (even those that may be in conflict, like ‘grounded’ and ‘risk taking’), in an effort to bring the best version of yourself to all areas of life.

Now, the caveat here is that I expect this is similar to how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is meant to be viewed: building one step to the next. Here, I would only recommend removing the language of “work” and “life” after a person feels he or she has established a healthy and balanced state of managing their time between both. Otherwise this pursuit of an “integrated self” runs the risk of allowing work to take over everything else in life.

(i.e. foster a symbiotic relationship between work & life)

Inspired by people like Brene Brown and Carl Rogers, ‘wholeness’ takes the idea of integration a step further still. Rather than stopping at bringing an integrated, consistent and “best” version of ourselves to a deliberate amount of time in different areas of our lives, what if each environment also fed off the other? And in so doing, what if we could be more effective, fulfilled and happy in all the environments in which we’re placed, because of the diversity? By bringing their ‘whole beings’ to all areas of life, I encourage leaders in the CoLab Network to reinforce the complementary nature of each.

For example, last weekend I was consumed by recent readings on the black human rights movement of the 50s and 60s. I was inspired by leaders like Wyatt T Walker and Jim Farmer, and also surprised to learn of their own admitted shortcomings related to a lack of vision and succession planning in their movement. I enjoyed this time to myself, and didn’t think or work on anything related to CoLab. Back at the office on Monday though, not only was I thinking about my work in new ways, but I was excited to apply some of my learnings from leaders like Rev Walker & Mr. Farmer to my own work. I feel lucky that CoLab gives me an outlet to try out ideas I have, inspired by the movements that have come before me. Back at home in the evening, the challenges of my day job in turn give me a more applied lens to consider the challenges that these leaders faced. And here’s the ‘symbiotic’ part again: I actually enjoyed the reading & down-time more, because of having been at work that day.

I hope this may be similarly helpful for others outside of the CoLab Network thinking about work-life balance, and I’d be glad to hear from you on this – you can reach me by email here or on Twitter @CoLabMike.

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