Work-life “balance” is a myth. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed.

Ironically, the frantic pursuit of a full life can leave us feeling stretched thin and unfulfilled.

If you’re striving for work-life balance, you’ll never get it, argues Stewart Friedman, a noted author and adviser to global leaders who inspires “rock star adoration” among his students at Wharton.

Stewart Friedman advocates developing skills that integrate work with the rest of your life – home, community and the private self of mind, body and spirit – to emphasise overall harmony rather than trade-offs.

In this interview during his recent appearance at the World Business Forum in Sydney, he outlined these core skills and showed how integrating them can lead you to better performance in all parts of your life.

The work-life balance paradigm

Work-life balance – that fraught division of time between work and family life – is the Holy Grail of the modern workplace. We’re all looking for it, but so far no one has actually found it. 

According to the work-life balance paradigm, there’s work and then there’s life – everything else. Like oil and water, the two don’t mix. 

But what if work-life balance is an unattainable myth – an unhelpful binary that privileges one area of life – work – and pits it against all others – life?

Stewart D. Friedman, professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, says the digital age’s obsession with elusive work-life balance stems from both “the widespread feeling of being overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life and the increased interest in doing work that has meaningful social value.”

Ironically, this frantic pursuit of a full life can leave us feeling stretched thin and unfulfilled. As we try to satisfy life’s competing priorities, we often find no one wins.

Friedman, who has developed his theories of work-life integration over three decades of teaching, research and practice in the field, suggests that a better way of understanding what we mean by work-life balance is to view life as the sum of four major domains: work or study, home or family, community, and the private realm of mind, body, and spirit.

Trading balance for harmony

Friedman rejects the notion that success in one part of life, whether it is work or home, requires sacrifice in others – what he calls a “trade-off mindset”.

“Our research at the Wharton School and elsewhere shows that it doesn’t always have to be this way,” he tells INTHEBLACK. 

Related: Can a shorter workday work?

“Using different language to describe the relationship between work and the rest of life opens your mind to seeing and actually pursuing gains in all the different parts of life.” 

Harmony should be our goal, he says, not balance. The challenge lies in finding strategies and solutions that make life better in all domains – what Friedman labels “four-way wins”.

This is not “having it all” – code for an impossibly high set of standards we impose on ourselves. 

“You can’t have it all – complete success in all the corners of your life, all at the same time. No one can,” Friedman writes in Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014). 

“But even though it can seem impossible to bring these four domains into greater alignment, it doesn’t have to be impossible. Conflict and stress aren’t inevitable. Harmony is possible.”

Skills and principles

In 1999, the CEO of Ford Motor Company recruited Friedman to create a program to help employees find better ways of integrating work with the rest of life. The result was Total Leadership, a program he subsequently developed into a course at Wharton and a book, Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life (Harvard Business Review Press, 2008). 

Three key principles underpin Friedman’s theory of Total Leadership: to be real, to be whole, and to be innovative.

“To be real is to act with authenticity by clarifying what’s important to you…To be whole is to act with integrity by recognizing how the different parts of your life affect each other. All this examination allows you to be innovative,” he explains in Leading the Life You Want

Success requires that you understand who and what is most important to you in the different parts of your life. 

“Then you create new ideas for how to improve performance in all the different parts,” he tells INTHEBLACK.

Professional Development: Using your time effectively: learn how to meet targets, improve your productivity and maintain focus through effective time management.

Leading by example

Friedman’s research found that to increase performance in the different parts of their lives, the most effective leaders act with authenticity, integrity and creativity.

In Leading the Life You Want, Friedman offers six case studies of high-profile people who have successfully integrated work with the rest of life by demonstrating these values. 

One example he gives is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who has a knack for “creating win-win solutions that meet multiple goals” – like turning the common problems faced by working mothers everywhere into an agenda-setting, bestseller book, Lean In.

But work-life integration is not restricted to the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world. According to Friedman’s principles, anyone can achieve four-way wins.

Trial and error

Like any rigorous scientific method, Friedman’s theory relies on experimentation.  

His experiments are systematically planned and executed trials of minor changes to see how they affect the different areas of life. If something doesn’t work, the experiment is adjusted or abandoned, and the failure notched up to experience. 

“Little is lost,” Friedman writes, while wins accrue to gradually improve life as a whole. 

It’s a system that is open to everyone. 

“For decades I’ve been coaching people at all life stages and in countries around the world and I have never met a person who could not come up with a creative idea for experimenting in what I call ‘the laboratory of your life’ in the pursuit of four-way wins,” he says. 

“To do so is challenging, and fun.”  

Do your priorities match your efforts?

Try this test. Prioritise four areas – or domains – in your life and then examine how much focus and effort you’re allocating to each (see example below). Are the two lists aligned? 

This common lack of alignment is what often leaves us with a sense of imbalance or dissatisfaction. By realigning your focus and effort with your priorities, you can start to create greater harmony in your life. 

Read next: Can a shorter work week help work-life balance?

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October 2021
October 2021

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