If you’ve ever snuck off to the bathroom during a romantic dinner at a restaurant to check your work email, you know how hard it can be to keep career obligations from seeping into your downtime.
But while you may have felt guilty scrolling through client updates in the bathroom stall, chances are your partner was doing the same thing back at the table.
The truth is that very few of us have ever achieved that elusive lifestyle known as work-life balance.
And that doesn’t surprise Stewart Friedman, director of the Work/Life Integration Project at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life. In fact, he says we’ve been approaching it all wrong.
“The idea that ‘work’ competes with ‘life’ ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity,” Friedman writes. A better goal, in his opinion? Focus instead on how to better integrate all the different parts of our lives, which will ultimately make us feel happier and more fulfilled—a.k.a. work-life integration.
To that end, Friedman developed a simple writing exercise he calls the “Four Circles.” It’s designed to help identify what matters most to you—whether it’s more time for yourself or the ability to give more to your community—so you can then act more in accordance with your key values.
The result: You’ll finally feel great—not guilty—about the way you spend each day.
The beauty of this strategy is that it takes the frustratingly nebulous goal of work-life balance—and gives you permission to throw it out the window.
By simply giving up the notion that work will always be at odds with your other priorities, you’ll realize that your professional and personal life can exist in harmony.
Ready to see how it works? All you need is a pen, paper—and that new perspective.
How to Do It
Friedman says you need to think of your life in terms of four different domains: work, home, community and self. And the ultimate goal is for every day to be a “four-way win,” or fulfilling on all four levels.
The first step in the exercise is to create a “four-way attention chart.” Sketch out two columns, and in the first one assign a percentage to each domain based on how much you value it. For example, if you want to spend as much time with your family as you do on all the other aspects of your life combined, assign 50% to “home.”
In the second column, write down how much time you currently allocate to each domain. Now it’s time to compare: Do the numbers in each column match? If not, you know you have some work to do.
Next, draw four circles representing each of the domains, with the goal of figuring out where they overlap. Are your interests and actions from one domain compatible with others? For instance, maybe you do volunteer work with your co-workers, or you make it a point to exercise with your family. If all of your circles overlap, the different parts of your life are in harmony.
Not much of an artist? Head over to myfourcircles.com and plug in your percentages.
But if that’s not the case, don’t worry. “None of us has perfect alignment,” says Friedman. And since work-life integration is a constant work in progress, there are ways to readjust if you find yourself a bit off-kilter.
One solution? Talk to the people who matter in each of these domains about why you’re feeling stretched too thin. You may be surprised to find that your supervisor won’t mind at all if you move the staff meeting so it won’t conflict with carpool duty.
“Most people are surprised to find that others either expect less of them and their time, or they expect something a bit different,” Friedman says. “This ‘aha’ allows you to adjust and often frees up time for other things that matter more to you.”