Picture a professional who’s always at ease. Maybe you know someone like this at work. They respond to your emails and pings quickly, but also seem to have a rich personal life, interesting hobbies, and a life outside of work.

How do they do it? 

They might be employing a work life balance practice called work-life integration. With 60% of Americans saying they struggle to keep a healthy balance between their professional and personal lives, it’s no wonder the concept of work-life integration has trended recently. 

What’s the difference between work-life balance and work-life integration?

I knew you had that question! Work-life balance seeks to achieve an ideal state where your work and life coexist and thrive separately; work-life integration is about bringing work and life closer together. 

Professionals practicing work-life integration care less about what’s “work time” and what’s “personal time” and focus instead on what’s the best time to do these things. That could mean working later in the day in order to focus on a personal project in the morning, or checking email after hours but also checking and responding to personal email during the work day. 

In other words, work-life integration sees every activity in your day as a part of a whole, and is less focused on compartmentalizing.

“Work-life integration creates a mindset that allows an individual to look at the big picture and synergistic interaction of all these components,” explains Michelle Marquez, Associate Dean of Human Resources and Administration at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. “There is not a sense of competing elements of work and life that must be evenly distributed.” 

But both work-life balance and work-life integration seek a similar feeling of harmony. 

Don’t give up on work-life balance

“In the broadest sense, they both mean the same thing: how to have a life that has time for work, and time for family, care, life, joy, play, and all of the things that make life worth living outside of work,” says Brigid Schulte, journalist, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, and director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in DC.

Is work-life integration right for you?

Many experts assert that work-life integration is the best approach. But, that doesn’t mean this concept is without its flaws. Let’s look at a few perks and drawbacks.

On the bright side: the advantages of work-life integration

If you had to boil things down to a single benefit, work-life integration eliminates the competition mindset that so many of us have about our professional and personal lives.

“The concept of balance inherently implies competing, compartmentalized interests,” says Marquez. “For some, this definition and mindset can be stressful when thinking about allocating time and energy for work, caring for children or aging parents, spending time with a significant other, enjoying time with friends, exercise, social obligations, cleaning, health, hobbies, or relaxation.” 

When we inevitably can’t fit everything into a single workday (or even week), Alyssa Westring, Associate Professor of Management at DePaul University, says that’s when we start to make trade-offs – oftentimes unhealthy ones.

“For example, people assume, ‘If I want to perform better at work, I have to take away time for my family,” she says. “We know that there are certainly trade-offs in life, but it’s not a particularly helpful or positive approach.”

That’s the beauty of work-life integration. It gives people the opportunity to get creative and identify new possibilities to make things better across all areas of their lives. 

Not always easy: the challenges of work-life integration 

When it’s not handled correctly, work-life integration can backfire and degrade both work and personal time. And it’s not for every personality type, either.

“Some people use work-life integration to make the point that there really are no boundaries anymore,” says Schulte, who describes herself as a “fusion lover” and has always blurred work and life boundaries. “But that can come at a cost too,” she admits. “On days that I don’t do it skillfully, I can get overloaded and bogged down trying to do too much all at once.” 

In addition, work-life integration isn’t quite as straightforward as making individual changes – particularly for people who work within a rigid schedule or have certain family obligations. For work-life integration to be accessible, there needs to be a shift in workplace cultures and a supportive family structure to support you.

“We often think of work-life balance or integration as the responsibility of the individual,” says Marquez. “However, the employer is a key component in the equation.” 

4 tips for integrating your work and personal lives

If work-life integration feels enticing to you, be sure to get a plan together. It’s not like you can dump your professional obligations and your personal passions into a big bowl and mix it all together. 

1. Know what work-life integration means to you

Like all big changes, it’s important to have a clear goal in mind. “Work-life integration will not look the same for every person,” says Marquez, “so you need to know exactly what this term means for you personally.”

  • Will it give you more time for creative projects?
  • Will it reduce the stress you feel leaving work at work? 
  • Will it help you care for or connect with a friend or family member better?
  • Will it free up time for self care during the work day? 

Get some clarity on what you’re aiming for. If you need to approach your employer about your desired changes (like a more flexible schedule or remote work arrangements), come prepared with suggestions and not just demands or complaints. Having a goal in mind will also help you check in with yourself to see if your work-life integration experiment is working. 

2. Be willing to experiment

Work-life integration isn’t something you’ll achieve overnight or with a single change. It’s a learning process with quite a bit of trial and error. That’s why Westring recommends approaching it like a science experiment.

“Try it, evaluate the results, and then decide whether to persist, make some changes, or try a different experiment altogether,” says Westring.

Make a small shift to get you going in the right direction. For example, you might decide to start exercising in the middle of the day, rather than rushing to a class right after you clock out of the office. Or even making a phone call to schedule an appointment in the middle of the afternoon vs. waiting until lunch or “outside of work” times. See if small changes feel right for you before adding other elements.

If you’re someone with perfectionist tendencies, it’s best to let go of those too. “Don’t let perfectionism stop you from trying something new. And don’t treat yourself like a failure if it doesn’t go the way you hoped,” says Westring. 

3. Change your perspective: state of mind vs. “flexible” routine

While having a set routine is more characteristic of work-life balance, Marquez says it’s still important to prioritize what’s important to you.

“Use the concept of a routine to prioritize what’s important – not to fit everything into a day,” she says. 

A lot of integrators actually pack their schedules pretty full and it’s more a state of mind vs. a “flexible” routine. Many who practice work-life integration have pretty strict blocks for things that must be done at a certain time, i.e “routine.” For example, if you have to pick up kids from daycare, you can’t be flex on that timing. But maybe you take your last meeting of the day on the phone while commuting or you call a friend to catch up while you’re in the carpool line, or you check Slack while you’re on the stairs at the gym.

The idea is you adjust your thinking, and so if your typical routine in a work-life balance sense includes time for you to drop kids off and pick them up at school, it means you need to fit some work tasks in after they’ve gone to bed. 

4. Kick guilt to the curb

Guilt is one of the biggest hurdles you’ll need to get over if you want to integrate your work and personal lives. Even though 67% of Americans desperately want more time for themselves, one in three feel guilty about taking it. Experts say the expectation that you should always be working is something you need to let go of. 

“Seeking work-life integration is not something that should be viewed as a luxury or something to feel guilty about,” says Marquez. “It’s a necessary component of our overall physical health, mental health, productivity, and engagement.” 

Use work-life integration to help yourself off the highwire 

Tiptoeing along the fine line between your work life and your personal life isn’t easy. So much as a slight breeze can send you careening toward one side – requiring a lot of energy to bring things back together. 

That’s exactly why work-life integration is appealing to some more readily than work-life balance. But, there’s one more important caveat to keep in mind: You really don’t need to get hung up on the vocabulary here. 

“For most people, the language matters to the extent that it influences your mindset and behavior,” says Westring. “But, it’s really about getting out of the habit of seeing things as a trade-off and instead focusing on creating harmony.”

Do that, and you can step down from that hypothetical highwire and enjoy all aspects of your life – even if they aren’t always perfectly balanced. 

What is work-life integration anyway?