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Forget Work-Life Balance: Aim for Blend Instead

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We should stop searching for work-life balance. Its existence ranks up there with such mythical concepts as having it all, the 20s as a carefree ball of laughs, and Santa Claus traveling 650 miles a second to get around the globe in one night.

I began my obsession with work-life balance days after starting my first full-time job. No wonder, considering that we spend about 54 percent of our waking hours at work (and what percentage commuting there and back?). I used to think that I should somehow compartmentalize my work so that I could enjoy my life. Keeping things separate and highly time-regimented would provide the elusive work-life balance I desperately craved.

On the contrary, I began to resent my work because of all that it stripped from my "life." The spheres of my life were in heated competition for my most precious commodities: energy and time. And I hated my career every time it won out.

Looking back, I realize that I should have began building something else from the very start, something I now advocate to my college students and career coaching clients: work-life blend.

What is Work-Life Blend?
In a work-life blend model, life and work are seen as consistent and symbiotic, with work viewed as a genuine part of life.

Although I've long embraced this concept, I didn't have name for it until I watched a Good Life Project interview between Mitch Joel and Jonathan Fields. During the interview, Joel argues for work-life blend, noting: "I don't believe in work-life balance. How many hours do you spend working every day? I take it very personally."

Fields agrees, stating: "Work-life balance comes from a baseline assumption that work is outside of life. It doesn't feed it, it doesn't intersect. It's something that you need to stop doing because it's something that exists purely so you can feed life."

Two researchers from the nonprofit organization Catalyst, Jeffrey Greenhaus and Gary Powell, support the work-life blend approach. According to the article "Working Life 'Balance' Isn't the Point" in the Harvard Business Review, Greenhaus and Powell believe:

Work and personal life should be allies and that participation in multiple roles, such as parent, partner, friend, employee, can actually enhance physical and psychological well-being -- especially when all of the roles are high quality and managed together.

In other words, we should see ourselves as a whole and integrated person, not as someone splintered into a million tiny pieces that must be kept isolated.

Workaholism Isn't Work-Life Balance
The danger of the work-life blend approach, of course, is the possibility of letting work consume us.

One way to avoid workaholism is by recognizing that true work-life blend begins in one particular direction: from self to work. Work may come to inform the self over time, but work must first and foremost be designed by the individual if we are to experience meaning and flow, the bedrocks of lasting happiness.

I live this philosophy. My teaching, coaching, and writing are integrally a part of who I am, and vice versa. Not everyone can understand this choice, though, and sometimes I get ribbed for my love of what I do. In fact, I woke up early to put the finishing touches on this very post, not out of obligation but out of desire. My typically supportive husband lay half-asleep in bed beside me as I typed, moaning "work, work, work."

The thing is, writing doesn't feel like work to me, a point Fields also makes:

When everybody's asleep, one person may make the choice to go and watch TV or read a book. But my choice would be I want to go write. I want to go build something. I want to go produce something. Why is that any lesser of a choice, simply because it's labeled under 'work'?

Joel seems to concur, saying that he dislikes being on vacation if he's told he can't work during it. "Why take me away from the things I really love?" he asks.

Admittedly, there's a fine line between being a workaholic and embracing work-life blend. Waking early every morning to write blog posts, for instance, may not be the best idea. One important distinctions between workaholics and people with work-life blend are that workaholics sometimes suffer health troubles due to work stress and neglect non-work domains of their life.

As Joel puts it, life is a stool that has three legs -- personal, community, and work -- and all three need to be equally strong in order to have a fulfilling life. The three domains may -- and perhaps should -- interact deeply with one another, but work cannot replace community and personal endeavors if we're to remain mentally and physically healthy.

How to Create Work-Life Blend
Assuming that those of us who have created work-life blend find pleasure, meaning and happiness in this approach, how can you do it, too?

  1. Identify your life's theme. In the Harvard Business Review article Christine Riordan says, "To help eliminate 'negative spillover' from work into home life or vice versa, we should put everything in the same container and create a coherent narrative -- doing so can reduce work-life separation." To do this, imagine yourself at a party answering the age-old question, "So what do you do?" Try to craft a succinct story that is both personally meaningful AND that contains your work. If you simply can't do this -- even after enlisting brainstorming help from friends and relatives -- then it's time to redesign your work. Which brings us to Point #2.
  2. Design your work using intentionality and introspection. In response to the HBR article, coach Ali Davies suggests, "I think the key is focusing on designing the life you really want, creating your own definition of success based on your core values and then re-engineering work or business to support that. Business should serve and protect what is most important in life -- not balance with it."
  3. Re-evaluate your work-life blend on a regular basis. As mentioned, work-life blend can cross over into workaholism if the other facets of life are left unattended. In addition, we tend to steer away from our self-driven goals as external pressures like money and status inevitably rear their heads. Therefore, it's best to set an anniversary date -- New Year's, if you're a traditionalist; a random day in May if you're not -- to systematically re-assess one's work-life blend. Even the most well-intentioned path can go awry if it's not recalibrated every so often

Riordan sums things up best:

"Even in the busiest of schedules, the most practical and effective way we can live is by aligning our personal priorities of work, family, health, and well-being. Such realignment can bring huge gains in emotional and physical energy, not to mention greater clarity and focus at work."

** If you want to focus in on the work-life blend discussion in the following interview between Mitch Joel and Jonathan Fields, watch from 24:22 to 30:50. **

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