Managing Work and Life Integration

Mother using laptop while her two children using smartphones.

Let’s start by noting that work-life integration is not the same as work-life balance. It isn’t realistic to think that if we were just a little better at juggling our responsibilities between work and home life that every aspect of our lives would fall into perfect harmony and that there wouldn’t be any more stress between our professional and personal lives. This isn’t a practical idea and the assumption that it is possible does harm to families, and careers, in the long run. 

Juggling Responsibilities

In response to how she manages it all, author Nora Roberts was once quoted as saying, “the key to juggling is to know that some of the balls you have in the air are plastic and some are glass. The trick is to know which is what.” 

Because if you drop a plastic ball it’s no harm done, but if it’s a glass one that slips, well, we all know how that goes. As a working parent trying to manage life and work integration, you have to first recognize which balls in your life are glass and then prioritize catching those above others. 

And before one starts thinking that “family” is one ball and “work” is another—think even more minutely than that. One ball might be “pick up milk for tomorrow” while another is an upcoming deadline for a big project at work. A ball could be showing up for a class play, a happy hour with friends you haven’t seen in weeks or picking up your dry cleaning so your favorite outfit is ready for your interview. 

Each of these tasks is a ball in the life of a working parent and not all of them are glass. Some of them are okay to drop and pick up again at another time. As Nora said, “some family stuff is glass and some is plastic and sometimes to catch a glass work ball you have to drop a plastic family one and that’s okay.” As is the reverse. The question is how to integrate all of the different tasks in your life in a way that works for you and allows you to avoid shattering any of the glass balls in your juggling act.

Read on for tips to get you started on the path toward work-life integration and off the untenable path of “balance.”

Work-Life Balance vs. Work-Life Integration: What’s the difference?

Since the 1970s, companies have tried to attract employees with the perk of work-life balance, promising to give us enough time outside of the office to take care of our family and personal life. But the term work-life balance implies that there’s a tradeoff between work and personal life. 

In other words, when you’re at the office, you’re in work-mode, and once you get home, you switch gears into family-mode. But sometimes your work will bleed over into your personal time, and sometimes you’ll have to step out in the middle of your workday to handle some family matters. We cannot compartmentalize our commitments and responsibilities into purely “work” or “personal” hours. Nor should we be expected to heartily embrace these unrealistic constraints to feel successful, personally or professionally.

Work-life integration is, instead, about blending your work life and your personal life in a way where they complement each other. When you integrate the different parts of your life instead of trying to balance them, you can focus on what’s most important overall and prioritize those things. 

Defining work-ife integration

This can mean taking your lunch break with your kids every day and reserving a few hours on Saturday mornings to catch up on work tasks. You might miss your weekly team meeting to celebrate your child’s birthday or you might need to get someone else to take care of dinner while you stay late at the office to prepare for a presentation. Work and life have a fluid relationship and it’s time we all stopped pretending that wasn’t the case.

Tips to work toward work-life integration

Set realistic expectations

You can’t do it all, no matter how hard you try. And let’s be real—you probably don’t even want to do it all. You might love baking for a kid’s birthday party at school or you might prefer to buy grocery store cookies on your way to an early coffee meeting. You might break from work every day at lunch time to go for a run or you might make a dash over to a client’s office to go over some last minute details in person. 

The point is we all have our strengths, our interests and a limited number of hours in a day (days in a week, weeks in a year—you get the picture.) Consider your preferences and strengths when you start thinking about integrating your work and life, as the ultimate goal is to decide where to focus your energy so you can prioritize what matters most to you. Because one truth we can guarantee is that if you try to be supermom for your kids and a powerhouse at the office 100% of the time, you’re going to burn yourself out. 

Prepare to make choices

When you start thinking about your work and life integration, accept that you’re going to have to make choices. Your house may not be spotless all the time, and your family may have to eat leftovers a few nights a week. You might have to tell a colleague you can’t make a meeting unless the time is changed, you may have to decline an invitation to an industry event, or you might have to pass on a project that you just don’t have time for.

If it isn't a hell yes, it's a no

How to decide? In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown gives us a quick test to tell just how important something is for you: If it isn’t a hell yes, it’s a no. Take the advice with a grain of salt (not many have claimed that putting away the twelfth load of laundry was a hell yes), but it is a good barometer of your interest in any given activity or task.

Advocate for flexibility

While it may feel intimidating, discussing your needs with your boss gives them a clear picture of what you need to succeed. Before the discussion, think about what schedule best fits your needs and then be specific about your requests. Do you need to start your day an hour later so you can make it to morning yoga? Do you want to leave early on Fridays to pick your kids up from school and make up for it by putting in a few extra hours over the weekend? Be clear in your asks, the reasoning behind them and how you see the flexibility positively impacting your job performance. 

And be sure to focus on the value your request is driving back to your role: Place emphasis on how more flexibility in your schedule will ensure you can deliver on expectations and improve your productivity, and share how you plan to still be fully embedded in the team. 

If you’re not sure about what would work, or if your boss seems hesitant to give you the go-ahead, you can suggest a test period of a month or two with a small flex need to start. Depending on how it works out, you can try to suggest a slightly larger flex schedule when you reassess.

📖 Read more: Need More Job Flexibility? Don't Request It, Advocate for It

Keep in mind too, that flexibility is something that everyone needs from time-to-time. Even your colleagues who don’t have kids may be struggling to fit their workouts, appointments and social lives into their work schedules. So even if you’re the only mom in the office, you shouldn’t feel like a black sheep for asking to arrange a schedule that works for you. Let’s say it again for those in the back: what’s good for moms and dads is good for everyone!

Build the village

  • Friends? 
  • Family?
  • Other parents in your social circles? 
  • Coworkers?
  • Paid caretakers? 

A village is larger than one person and that is why they are successful. Don’t be afraid to embrace offers of help from your family, friends, partner, other parents, paid caregivers and more when figuring out how to manage your responsibilities. If your gym has childcare while you are in classes, great! If you have a good friend that loves to be a favorite auntie to your kids on Saturday morning, that’s golden. Have you worked out a school carpool with parents in your kid’s grade? Excellent. There are many avenues of help out there and it can be a game changer for you when you accept the offers of help or ask for help from those closest to you.

If you have a partner, it’s important to divide and conquer family and household-related tasks. Start by communicating your schedule and needs. Then let them know what to take off your plate for you.

▶️ Watch: If you feel that your share of the family-related chores is off balance, watch Unity Hour - Fair Play Your Way to Work-Life integration with Eve Rodsky for tips on getting back to even.

You can also get your kids to help out with some (age-appropriate) chores. A study published by the University of Minnesota found that children who started participating in household tasks as early as age three or four were more successful in their mid-20s. So assigning them daily or weekly responsibilities can not only lighten your load a bit, but also help them take on more responsibility down the road.

Scheduling is key

If you aren’t already, get in the habit of a daily routine, both for yourself and for your family. Predictable days benefit everyone involved as it lets you and everyone else know when you’ll be working, spending time with them, exercising or taking some other time for yourself. A schedule that works best for you will be determined by a wide variety of factors - like other schedules in your household, when you personally feel the most productive and workplace commitments. And, don’t be afraid to rearrange your schedule a few times while you are trying to find one that works well for you, your household, and your career.

Tools you can use for setting a consistent routine or schedule include a personal planner if you like the handwritten route, or a more tech-savvy option such as Google Calendar, Evernote or Clockwise. Whichever method you choose, make sure you allot time for everything you need to do in a day, projects at work, responsibilities at home, exercise and so on. And don’t forget to give yourself time for lunch. No one works well when they are hangry. 

Tips for prioritizing the next day

Take a brief moment each night to note the most important things you need to get done the next day. (Or do this once a week and note the important things to do in the week.) Then prioritize them by importance. The next morning work your way down the list and whatever is unfinished is moved to the next day (or week.) This method helps you prepare for the day (or week) ahead, and it helps combat decision fatigue that you would otherwise experience daily. 

Scheduling out time for everything you do can help you be more present in the moment, giving all of your attention to what you’re doing and more importantly, it helps your days run a little more smoothly.

Take advantage of time-savers

So many of us are bad at letting go of control, which hurts our ability to embrace time-saving options. While the notion of “it’s easier if I just do it myself” is easy to understand, it’s not beneficial to us in the long run. Between work, family and all the other aspects of our lives, we can easily end up drowning in our to-do list. So, consider this your invite to embrace letting go.

  • Open up to delegation. Teach your kids to put away their laundry. Trade nights you cook dinner with your partner. Ask your neighbor to pick up your kid from the bus stop with hers. Divide tasks equally from an upcoming presentation with your teammates. 
  • If it’s within budget, outsource. Invest in a meal service. Send your laundry out to the dry cleaners. Pay a teenager to do your yard work. Hire a freelancer to help you with your upcoming project.
  • Automate as much of life as possible. Use Amazon Subscribe & Save. Set up bill pay accounts. Install filters and/or set up canned responses in your email accounts.

And remember, even little hacks to save time can add up and make your responsibilities a lot more manageable. Think of how you can take advantage of your current schedule to improve it. Maybe you can schedule conference calls during your commute or prepare your kids’ outfits and lunches before bed for example. 

Be present no matter the focus

Multitasking is not the answer to integrating work and family life. Switching back and forth from one task to another tends to make it take longer to complete any one task and often leaves you feeling more frazzled than not. As a busy parent, your end goal is to be fully present for each aspect of your life. Not only will this help your focus and peace of mind, but it can also help you get more work done.

Try to use batching for tasks if possible. This means that you set dedicated times for each task. For example, you may pick two hours each day, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon to check email. And then disable your push notifications in the interim. Or you might take up meal prep each Sunday for the week ahead. When you focus on work or family, shut down any unrelated activities or notifications such as social media sites that you might be tempted to check periodically.

👉 Research from the American Psychological Association has found that multitasking can reduce productivity by up to 40%.

Create an inviting at-home workspace

If you plan to work from home some or all of the time, set yourself up to be productive by creating a quiet place where you know you’ll be able to focus. If you don’t have an extra room to use as an office, you can improvise by setting up a desk somewhere quiet and well-lit (just make sure it’s close to an outlet!). 

Put some thought and creativity into designing a set-up where you’ll feel calm and motivated, even just for a short burst while your kids are napping or watching TV. It doesn’t need to be pricey; if you’re on a budget, you can reuse items from around your house, or find lots of affordable tools and supplies at Target or resale sites like Craigslist.

📖 Read more: Setting Up Your Remote Workspace

Make family time special

Quality reigns supreme over quantity, but both are important in their own way. Kids need attention (as does your partner and other family members) and when you continuously ignore them or pay half-attention, they feel it. So, try to make the most out of your time with your loved ones - plan out activities, create meaningful traditions (like movie night), spend time together outside, take note of their interests and engage with them on those things. Whatever your family enjoys doing, make the time to make the interactions meaningful in some way.

Prioritize your well-being, too

Perhaps you can’t imagine having time to take care of yourself, but the reality is we all need to squeeze time into our days for ourselves. Whether that’s five minutes of meditation in the afternoon or waking up early to read a book over a quiet cup of coffee, it’s important to find time for activities that feed your soul.

Be sure to also take time to detach. While work-life integration can make your responsibilities more manageable, it can also make it harder to set boundaries at work. Your ideal schedule may include putting in a few hours in the evening or on weekends, but that shouldn’t mean working 24/7. Give yourself a few hours every day or week to completely put your work to the side.

And, treat yourself like your kids: Give yourself a bedtime and don’t let yourself eat too many unhealthy snacks. Making sure you get the right amount of sleep and take care of your body are important points to caring for yourself so that you can care for the others in your life.

👉 By taking care of yourself, you’ll be less anxious, stressed, and will have the energy to succeed in all of your roles.

Acknowledge this is an ongoing effort

Figuring out how to integrate your work and personal life will probably take some practice. You may have to test out a few different schedules before finding what works for you. You may struggle with asking for help from your village. Your priorities also may shift over time. For many, work schedules seem rigidly fixed and flexibility doesn’t seem like it's an option. But no matter where you are in work-life integration, the practice of looking at your overall schedule, planning in advance, setting guidelines and making a conscious note of the priority of the tasks in your life will set you up for success, personally and professionally. 

Change is constant. We know this as fact, but it is important to regularly evaluate what is important to you, what glass balls you have in the air, and how you can catch them rather than drop them throughout your life.

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- December 10, 2020

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