In speaking about setting our lives up for success, we often talked about balance — how do I strike that perfect work-life balance to achieve happiness? But the paradoxical thing is, this idea of balance is not at all in sync with the reality of 2021, and in an attempt to achieve this elusive idea of compartmentalizing parts of our lives, we end up arriving at fragmented identities, stress, and burnout. 

In Episode 08 of Thriver Podcast, Christine O’Neill, a Burnout Interventionist and  Executive Coach, speaks of the importance of work-life integration as opposed to balance. In looking to integrate the many aspects of our lives that make us unique (work, family, health and wellbeing, etc.), we take away the pressure to have our lives look like a stolidly balanced scale, leaving room for a fluid, organic, and healthy life.

The idea of work-life integration allows us to think about and prioritize more than one thing at a time. Taking inspiration from Christine, we’ve come up with some ways to start your journey toward a holistically integrated life.

Identify your strengths and weaknesses

The push toward perfection is like trying to recreate the Mona Lisa when you’ve never painted a day in your life. When it comes to daily life, this means that while creating a schedule is always a good idea, cutting yourself some slack when you haven’t stuck to it rigorously is an even better idea.

Work-life integration looks like knowing and playing on your strengths. If the afternoon is when your creative juices start flowing, then create a daily or weekly schedule that complements this ability. If mornings are a hazy time for you, then schedule more cerebral tasks for later in the day, leaving those tasks that require less concentration for the early hours. If you have 3 p.m. slumps, then inject some activity into your schedule by getting some fresh air.

Make use of your time as best as you can, not in the way other people do or to their standards of ability. It’s important to understand that weaknesses and strengths don’t have a moral value, and when you allow yourself the time in your days to work in a way that is most personally productive, you’ll find yourself feeling less pressure or stress when you can’t tackle everything on your schedule. 

Take control of stress

“We’re all wired to handle a certain amount of stress,” Christine says. But the past two years have brought on an amount of stress that very few of us have experience dealing with. Accordingly, sticking to stress management techniques that worked for us in 2019 might not be the most effective way to get over the nuance of present-day hurdles.

“Build in some down time for our brains to manage stress.”

– Christine O’Neill | Thriver Podcast Episode 08

Playing on your strengths, as mentioned above, is one great way to take control of stress, because it will help you feel active and productive. Additionally, meditation is a great way to take pause and reflect. It’s important that we “build in some down time for our brains to manage stress,” Christine advises. When days seem to whirl about us, that old adage of striking a balance seems impossible to follow. This is where integration in the form of flexibility comes in: taking a few moments to go on a walk, to read a couple of chapters of that book on your nightstand, or even to watch an episode of The Crown, will help you better break up your day and ultimately focus better.

Manage your work-life boundaries

You’ve probably been told of the benefits of a digital detox or breaks from technology so much that the advice seems hollow. Let’s reframe this idea: we have different needs than the immortal devices we use for work, our brains are organic and rely less on algorithms than our Twitter feeds may have us think.

Time away from tech allows us to get back to an intuitive way of thinking, this is why a boundary between the self and tech is so important. Work on creating a “no device” zone in your home and exercise this strategy as you would a muscle, without punishing yourself for checking your email in a no-tech space.

Even our approach to boundaries can be fluid. Take advantage of down time in the work. Your down time can be as simple as eating a snack and sitting on the couch. The key is to focus on what you are doing, even how little that ‘do’ really is. If you’re thinking about work while gazing at the clouds, you’re still working. 

Build on social time 

“Not being able to gather in person has had a negative impact on us,” Christine says. We’re social creatures and we need interaction to be healthy. Zoom and other types of video calls can’t, by definition, provide the unmediated human connection that we crave. And so, “removing that visual simulation [effect that video calls have] is helping your brain decompress,” Christine says.

Phone conversations remove the hollow tinniness and connection difficulties inherent to a video call, and they’re more intimate than video because you can focus on the cadence of your interlocutor’s voice. And physically distanced walks or park picnics can go a long way towards helping you remember your sense of community and humanity. 

Work-life integration is a less stringent way of living that doesn’t have you compartmentalizing your identity. None of us are two separate people: we work and we play, and by integrating both these ways of life, we can fight off stress, burnout, and isolation.
When working toward this kind of integration, remember that it’s important to communicate the changes you make in your workday with your team, and as a team leader, make sure to stress the importance of integration over forced balance for your employees. Finally, make sure to check out Episode 08 of Thriver Podcast for more wise, science-based words from Christine O’Neill!