Forget Work-Life Balance. Try for Work-Life Integration

IMG_6687This photo is of “my spot.” It feels like my own private place even though I know I share it with millions of others.  But it’s the space that calms me and allows me to clear my head.

Everyone needs to visit the place that brings them peace.  This has become relatively easy for me–I know where it is on Lake Michigan’s lakefront trail and that about two visits a week will do the trick.  This is all part of my own work-life integration.  My family and I both know that taking care of myself in this way is not time away from them–it’s my time for them because it makes me a better family member.

Likewise, I need to work, but in sane, integrated-into-life way.  Knowing when and where and how and how much to work so that it’s a fully-integrated part of your life is essential.  And the key to this is increasingly knowing how to say “no!”IMG_6688

When I check in with clients to see how a project is going, the reply is often some version of,

I’m behind on the job search because my current job is keeping me busy” or

I’ve been consumed with teaching and committee work” or

I’ve started collecting data for another study and collaborating with someone on another project.”  

Does any of this sound familiar? Outside factors are controlling the work piece of your life so that work-life integration becomes challenging–perhaps overwhelming.

Check out this study from on How Successful People Handle Stress. The #1 way successful people handle stress? They’re comfortable saying, “no!”

The first step to work-life integration is deciding how you will say “no.” For example, you probably have to work 9 to 5. You might be able to find few ways to make more efficient use of that time, but if you are committed to finding another job, then you have to draw the line somewhere. Make a conscious plan.  Are Mondays your freshest, most efficient days?  Then commit to clocking out at 5:00 so you can take an hour or two to unwind and still have an hour or two to work on your job search.  Maybe Saturday afternoons are what will work best for that. Wherever you carve out the time, commit to it, know that it is part of your own work-life integration, and that you are doing everything you can do to build your career. And take care to not just get swept along by others driving your work life.

Perhaps because of their flexibility, my academic clients really struggle with the “saying no” aspect of work-life integration. To get started, you have to consciously develop a plan for saying “no.” Decide how you will say no; have a plan in place so you can deploy it when you feel cornered.  

Here’s one  approach: the first committee you’re asked to be on, say “yes” to earn goodwill; agree to a second committee only if you can find advantage to you in 3 steps or fewer–is there some important networking you know you can do with other committee members to get you a promotion, a speaking engagement, or a publication? Will experience on that committee give you access to new knowledge that you can deploy in the next 2-3 years to advance your own career? Try to figure out what you need to get out of it to make it worthwhile, then make room for it on your terms.

If you absolutely cannot say “no,” then say, “yes, but….” To continue with the committee example: if you absolutely cannot say, “no,” then plan to minimize committee work by showing up just in time for the meetings, leaving as soon as they’re over, not agreeing to do any work outside of the meetings until every single other committee member has agreed to do as much or more–then don’t lift a finger outside the meetings until you know everyone else has already done what they agreed to do outside of meetings.  

“Yes, but…” should always be followed by an explanation of why it’s in the other person’s best interest for you to really say “no.” As in, “yes, I can serve on that committee…next year–after I’ve finished my dissertation. As you know, my continued employment here depends 100% on my finishing & defending my dissertation by the end of this academic year.”  Or, “Yes, I’d love to co-author an article with you–just as soon as I submit these other two I’ve been working on. As you know, my continued employment here depends upon me publishing 3 solo authored pieces per academic year. So let’s set up a timeframe to keep me on track so I can get my work out, stay employed, and collaborate with you!”  

If you need help devising a way to say “no,” getting on track to take control of your work life, and finding a way to integrate work into your life, let me know:

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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