In today’s society, with increasing job demands and smartphones and other types of technology that keep us perpetually plugged in, many of us are in search of ways to find that elusive balance between work and life.
But the actual words “work-life balance” are problematic, according to Ellen Kossek, Ph.D, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Labor & Industrial Relations and an expert on improving relationships between work, family and personal life.
“It’s rare for most people to have an equal balance,” she said. Striving to reach equilibrium is like trying to achieve perfection: It’ll never happen and only leads to frustration and fatigue.
Instead, a better way to think about it is “work-life relationships,” she said, “so your life doesn’t feel at odds.” Similarly, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving a healthy relationship between work and life.
In fact, the big secret is that it really depends on the person, an idea that Kossek and co-author Brenda A. Lautsch discuss in their book CEO of Me: Creating a Life That Works in the Flexible Job Age.
In it, they explain how each person has their own way of approaching their personal and professional lives, which they term flexstyle. The idea of individual flexstyles evolved from Kossek and Lautsch’s research with hundreds of professionals from different types of organizations.
Figuring Out Your Flexstyle
There are three major flexstyles and two subtypes within each category. What separates the subtypes is the level of control and happiness the person feels using that flexstyle. As they explain in the book, two people may be doing the same thing, such as finishing up a project at home, but one person may feel content while the other one feels spread thin and unsatisfied.
In addition to control, also important are how you manage interruptions and whether your flexstyle aligns with your values and your identity, Kossek said. She described various identities: work-centric, family-centric, dual-centric (both family and work) and other-centric (which places the importance on other things such as volunteering, church or social life). Your identity is how you envision yourself in the world and define your life’s primary purpose.
A successful flexstyle is a conscious choice that you make about what works best for you.
These are the three flexstyles and their subtypes:
- Integrators mix work and life. Fusion lovers view mixing their profession and personal life as a positive. They’re able to seamlessly switch roles. Reactors, however, feel that they have little control and tend to focus on what requires their attention the most at the moment.
- Separators set strict boundaries around work and life by leaving work at work and their personal life at home. Even if they work from home at times, they set up a separate space for work. Firsters either focus on their family or their work life as their most important priority, which gives them satisfaction. Captives feel trapped in one role (e.g., a single mom whose company doesn’t allow telecommuting).
- Volleyers switch from integrating and separating their work and personal lives, depending on what the situation calls for. Quality Timers use time to decide what flexstyle to use. In the book, the authors give the example of a mom who’s an accountant. During tax season, work is her first priority, while her husband takes over family duties. During the other months, however, she cuts her hours and interrupts work for the kids. Job Warriors face time constraints when switching roles. For instance, they might do a lot of traveling for work and work at home.
Flexstyles aren’t fixed, Kossek said. They can change. Again, a good indictor of an effective style is whether you feel in control, you’re managing your relationships well and the style fits your values, she said.
If that’s not the case, consider reevaluating your current style. Another important time to reassess is when you’ve gone through a major life transition, such as marriage, the birth of a child, a divorce or job loss.
Strategies to Help Your Style
Each flexstyle has its tradeoffs. For instance, Kossek said, integrators can experience “switching costs.” As they’re trying to multi-task, it takes much longer to get things done. “Separators can be kind of stunted” and “develop one side of themselves. Volleyers can easily become Job Warriors.”
But you can make certain tweaks to your flexstyle to make it work for you, according to Kossek. She recommended the following:
- Keep a time journal. It can help to collect some data on how you’re truly spending your time in a typical week. In the book, Kossek and Lautsch also suggest keeping track of your moods, conflicts and context. This way, you can spot patterns and situations that trigger your stress.
- Schedule it. Many of us don’t spend much time thinking about how to manage our lives, Kossek said. Instead, get deliberate and schedule the things that you’re passionate about.
- Experiment. It’s easy to get stuck in a specific routine. Try to do things a little differently and see how that works. You can even try a different flexstyle.
- Talk with others. Find people in similar situations and talk with them about how they’re able to overcome challenges. Or try brainstorming together.
- Be in the moment. Thanks (or no thanks) to today’s technology, we’re able to be in many different places at the same time. But this doesn’t do much for the quality of our relationships, Kossek said. Instead, try your best to focus on the activity at hand.
The key to a successful work-life relationship is to actively manage your flexstyle, Kossek said. “You have to think about what feeds your soul. What makes you feel the best about yourself.” You want to “give your time and energy to things that you love.”
You can learn more about Ellen Kossek and her work at her website.