Beyond Work-Life Balance


It is impossible to be the perfect friend, athlete, parent, partner, employee, read 50 books every year, stay up to date on the TV shows everyone is talking about, do all the “self-care” things, and on and on and on.

For many people, it is better to do a few things well—with full attention and deep care—than it is to do a bunch of things just sort of average.

Part of being a mature adult is realizing that tradeoffs exist.

Once you shed the illusion of “balance” you can begin to prioritize.

It can be hard to prioritize, no doubt. But it’s a wonderful feeling when you give yourself permission to go all-in on what matters to you most, even if that means leaving some other stuff behind.

What matters to you most will change over time. Your job is to evaluate these shifting priorities and adjust as necessary.

Yet there can still be a real tension between even just a few important things you aspire to do well: examples include your job, family, relationships, health, and leisure.

Here, a helpful framework is integration versus boundaries, something I’ve thought about for a while and was reminded of reading Simone Stolzoff’s book, .

Integration lets everything flow together: You switch between different things in real-time and often combine them. Your life informs your work; your work informs your life; your community informs both; and so on.

Boundaries, on the other hand, draw distinct lines of separation: During this day or that time, you focus squarely on this or that single element of your life.

To an extent, we all do a bit of both integrating and separating. The two don’t even need to be exclusive. For example, I largely integrate the main pursuits in my life with a few exceptions, when I find boundaries are key. For me this revolves around family and community time; it’s why I keep a digital sabbath and carry a burner flip-phone when I’m out with friends or family.

But I’m still largely an integrator. The rest of the time my mind is never completely turned off of my work. This isn’t surprising. I write about broad topics. Just about everything provides grist for the mill.

Here’s the great poet, writer, and integrator Mary Oliver:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

But other jobs and other temperaments (and the combination of the two) lead to different approaches for different people in different seasons of their lives.

The point is there is no single best approach. And what works might work until it starts to get in the way.

An extreme example are social media “influencers,” who are perhaps the ultimate integrators. They often find it fun and exciting at first, but then their entire lives become commercializing their identity on a personality marketplace. For most (but not all), professional influencing ends with emptiness and misery.

Whether you’re a writer or influencer or physician or teacher or attorney or stay-at-home parent, a helpful exercise is to examine when boundaries feel contrived and forced (and when this happens, try to get comfortable with integration) and also when integration feels like it’s too much, too distracting, or turns everything into work (and when this happens, try to get comfortable with setting boundaries). There is a time and place for both approaches. The work is figuring out which works best when.

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