Life is all about trade-offs. You can’t have it all. That’s the conventional wisdom about work-life balance.
But according to Stewart D Friedman, Wharton School professor and author of Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life, we need to rethink those assumptions.
“The people who are most successful in terms of having a significant impact on the world are those who embrace other parts of their lives, rather than forsake them,” he says.
“That was the big motivating idea: to cut through the common wisdom that you have to give up everything in order to be successful.”
Work-life balance vs work-life integration
In fact, even the term “work-life balance” needs to be overhauled, he says.
The implication that we can (or should) perfectly balance our personal and professional lives all the time is faulty.
“It’s highly segmented, a kind of economic model that is based on the assumption that there’s a fixed sum of time or energy or attention and that it can only be divided up in so many ways,” he says.
Friedman rejects the implication that time spent working always takes away from other facets of one’s life (or vice versa).
“If you assume zero-sum,” he says, “if you’re my employer and I want balance, what that means is that I’m taking something from you.”
Instead, he prefers the term “work-life integration”, which better reflects his view that we can find win-win approaches if we search hard enough.
“The people who are most successful are those who figure out ways of bringing the different pieces together in ways that are mutually reinforcing,” he says.
“What I’ve seen is that if you’re smart about choosing what matters and who matters, if you’re being creative and continually learning about how to bring the pieces together, you can find room in your world to take steps that make things better in all the different parts [of your life].”
This is what he calls a “four-way win”, which benefits your work, your family, your community, and your health (mind/body/spirit).
In Leading the Life You Want, he profiles top leaders – from Sheryl Sandberg to Michelle Obama, and Bruce Springsteen to former Bain & Company chief executive officer, Tom Tierney – and tells their stories, explaining how their choices enable them to thrive in multiple realms of their lives.
Friedman himself tries to build in four-way wins (or at least wins on multiple dimensions).
For example, he invited his sons to help him choose the playlist for a recent Sirius XM radio appearance he was disc jockeying, in tribute to Springsteen’s inclusion in his book.
“It was just another way of connecting with them,” he says, as well as fulfilling a professional obligation to promote his book.
Getting more with less
In a previous job at Ford Motor Company, Friedman also used innovative scheduling to ensure he’d be able to spend more time with his family, even while working at a very demanding job.
His first year on the job, when he moved his family to Michigan, he vowed, “I’m going to be home for breakfast and dinner.”
His behaviour was so unusual, word quickly spread. During a meeting in Germany, a European executive approached him: “Are you the guy who goes home for dinner every night? I heard about you.”
But the following year, his kids were homesick and wanted to return to the East Coast, so Friedman began commuting back and forth from Philadelphia.
Instead of coming home for dinner every night, he’d now work gruelling hours during the week – often dining with his colleagues – and would instead spend weekends at home with his family.
“I was incredibly productive that year,” he recalls.
“There’s a lot of different solutions. You’ve just got to figure out what works for you in your circumstances.”
“The people who are most successful in terms of having a significant impact on the world are those who embrace other parts of their lives, rather than forsake them,” – Stewart D Friedman
Steps to achieve work-life integration:
“If you’re looking to integrate your own work and life better,” says Friedman, “the first step is getting clear on what really matters to you – not what others say you should be doing. There’s a lot of different ways to live,” he says.
“You’ve got to find the one that’s right for you and try not to listen to all the social pressure, parental pressure, societal pressure.”
Next, find out what the people around you really do want or expect.
“It’s remarkable how little we truly know about what the people around us really need from us,” he observes.
We might assume our spouse is angry that we’re not home every night for dinner, but what they really want is more quality time on weekends.
We won’t know unless we ask, and engage in a real conversation without making assumptions.
He says, “When you tell people, ‘You really matter to me and I want to strengthen our relationship and here’s some things that I think are most important to you – do I have it right?’, most people will be flattered. They’re going to feel closer to you. They’re going to be honoured and they’re going to tell you.”
3. Trial and error
Finally, he says, it’s important to experiment. You likely will only find the right work-life integration through an iterative process.
According to Friedman, “If you want to work from home one day a week and need to negotiate that with your boss, the concept of experimentation is really important.
“It’s a lot different for me to say to you, ‘Can we just try this for a few weeks and let’s see how it goes and if you’re not happy, we’ll try something different?’… as opposed to, ‘You are never going to see me on Fridays again because I’ve got to go to the soccer game for the rest of the year, and if I’m not there then I’m sorry and if you don’t like it, I’ll go to [work for someone else].’
“So, it’s not me against you, it’s ‘Let’s try to find something that works for us.’”
How are you integrating your work and life?
Time seems to be the only element in the world that cannot be retrieved once it is lost. It is also a fair gift given to all of us. No matter how rich or how poor we are, from blue collar workers to senior managers of big or small organisations, we all have 24 hours in a day to spare – no more, no less. Check out these tips on how to manage time effectively.
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