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Which Works Better: A Balanced or an Integrated Life?

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For decades all sorts of gurus have been encouraging us to “find the right work-life balance.” What does that actually mean? How do people seek to find the “right” balance? Are there better ways? What does it mean to have an integrated life? What is meant by a symbiotic life?

For decades we have been implored to find “a better work-life balance.” We have been dispensed ‘wisdom’ such as “have a social life,” and “create me-time.”

If you have sensed that such advice was, searching for a diplomatic phrase, more vacuous than optimal, your instincts were right.

Almost everyone knows that too much focus on any one aspect of life comes at a cost to all the others. The super-successful lawyer, business leader, physician, dentist or divorced three times, with a drug or alcohol problem, (or both), who has been depressed or depressive for decades, and then ends their own life, has gone beyond trope into full-blown cliché.

Was their life so ‘out of balance’ prior to their self-inflicted demise that such an end was inevitable? That is not as easy a question to answer as it seems. Super-successful people who are mono-focused have often told me, in coaching sessions, that the price of success is choosing one goal at the cost of all others.

Looking at the lives of high achievers, it seems true; almost all choose to focus on one aspect of life and eschew all others. Rarely does someone become world-class in more than one area of endeavour.

Steve Jobs focused on creating technology. He did not become a world-class musician, athlete, or scientist. Marie Curie focused on understanding radiation and forewent opportunities to become brilliant in almost every other field. The list of high achievers who were mono-focused is extremely long.

That tends to be read by others to mean that if they, too, wish to be high achievers, they have to focus on one area at the cost of all others.

Is that really how most high achievers achieve; by sacrificing their friendships, families, health, and all other interests? Absolutely not.

At the other end of the scale, are those who listen to the gurus and seek a “work-life balance.” They exercise well, eat healthily, enjoy plenty of time with family, have a good social life, and have hobbies that they love.

All appears well; in balance. Alas, most people who seek a “work-life balance” do not fully realise their potential.

The assumption made by mono-focus advocates is that all that time spent on “work-life balance” is time that could have been invested in achievement. All those hours, days, months, and years, chewing the fat with friends, could have, (the mono-focussed thinking), been spent on improving their skills, making useful contacts, and obtaining a competitive advantage.

It seems that we are saying that “work-life balance” comes with a price, too, foregoing the realisation of potential. It seems “work-life balance is as problematic as being mono-focused. Is it? Let’s explore.

Many of the brilliant CEOs, MDs, leaders, managers, sports, medical, and music achievers I have had the honour of coaching, to even higher levels of performance, do not advocate either extreme. They operate in the sweet spot. What is that sweet spot?

Rather than sacrificing all other areas of life to achieve in one, and rather than sacrificing the thing they are passionate about in the name of some socially approved balance, they integrate all aspects of their lives. They create symbiotic relationships between the aspects of their lives.

What does that mean? What is an integrated life? What is meant by a symbiotic life? How is it done? Where do you start?

It means that they harness “what is” in constructive ways. Here is an example. Every start-up entrepreneur knows that they have to manage cash flow. That means they need to know the cash flow position at any given moment.

They also know that doing their own accounts is a cost-saving exercise. The visionary mindset of a typical entrepreneur is such that they find doing their accounts mind-numbingly, morale-sapping dull; a task that they can just about bear doing when half asleep.

How do they integrate their accounts into their personal ways of working? They can do their accounts when they are depleted and tired. After the tasks are done that require their highest level of mental functioning they may go to the gym, to exercise, and keep their body fit and healthy. Once tired they feel able to face the perceived mundanity of their accounts.

In this example the person is not seeking a balance, they are seeking integration. They want to do the accounts, even though they hate it, they want to exercise; they want to find a way to integrate doing the accounts with other aspects of life. Doing their accounts when feeling one level above brain-dead works for them.

Fortunately, we are all different, and by harnessing those differences, together we can achieve more than we can individually. We have some accountants who can take one look at a set of figures and spot the hallmarks of what is really going on in an organisation, good and bad.

Brilliant, eagle-eyed accountants are an example of how by integrating our skills, at a societal level we can all live better lives. We live in symbiosis; that is, we bring benefit to others, in exchange for the benefit they bring to us.

Most of the high achievers I have coached work in the same way; each aspect of their lives is arranged to complement and benefit all the others, or as many of the others as possible.

Here is another example. A high achiever has a “to-do list” which includes: an important phone call to make, the need to exercise, making a visit to some official, selecting and picking up a thank-you gift for a family member, posting some important documents, and needing to have their hair attended to.

Operating with a mindset of integration, the high achiever plans how to conduct the to-do list in a way where each element benefits the others.

For example, once they knew the location of the official visit they may decide to walk, to obtain the needed exercise. The route would be planned to pick up the thank-you gift and post the documents, and while they were walking, a phone call would be made.

Living in an integrated, and symbiotic way is more powerful than “balance.” The highest achievers I have coached all live symbiotically. Their hobbies and interests provide social connection and/or a welcome change of environment, which gives them a fresh mindset, with which they can better solve problems.

Their exercise routine keeps their health and fitness at a high level, which enables them to have more energy for family, hobbies and interests, which keeps their morale high, which enables them to… and on goes the symbiotic cycle.

Every aspect of their lives is designed to help every other aspect of their lives, as much as possible; they live integrated lives where each activity has a symbiotic relationship with the other.

They go beyond balance. Some are even hostile to the idea of balance since it implies pitting good against bad, and desirable against undesirable. They look for symbiosis, and once found, they integrate that symbiosis.

Most people take a win-lose approach to life; time spent at work is a loss of family time. People who live integrated, or symbiotic lives look for and create win-win loops.

If you have ever wondered why super-successful people seem to “have and do everything,” that is why. Every aspect of their lives is mutually supportive, not by accident, but by design.

Was it always that way for such people? Absolutely not. They build it up one symbiotic loop at a time.

For instance, they may have started this way: when taking a 15-minute break from work, they may do some exercise or pick up the phone to a colleague with whom they have set up a language teaching exchange arrangement. When they take the kids to their hobby events in the evenings while waiting they speak to the other parents about their business, and exchange ideas, or opportunities.

Among those who seem to live the most integrated lives are top salespeople. Everywhere they go, every individual they meet has hundreds of contacts, and several of those are potential customers. Every social contact is either a potential sale or a potential referral to a sale.

Even sleeping can be harnessed in an integrated way. Numerous high achievers have given accounts of how they will set themselves a problem to solve just before going to sleep and awake with the solution fully formed in their minds.

Of course, not everyone wants to be a super-high achiever in the way society defines it. Most want to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and raise a happy, well-adjusted family. Here, too, taking the integrated, symbiotic approach to life is beneficial. Indeed, whatever a person wants to achieve in life can be made more likely by creating symbiotic loops between the elements of their lives.

It is time to move on from the hollow notion of “work-life balance” and embrace the integrated life; the symbiotic life.

Which areas of your life will start with? What will be the symbiotic loops that you create?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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