I've had several conversations recently that touched on the topic of boundaries--one person even called me a "role model" in this regard, which is the sort of thing that gets my attention.
In regard to this exploration of "work-life balance," what's clear in our discussion is that we have been using the word "balance" when what we really seem to mean is "boundaries." Boundaries keep things in their place. Balance suggests the same amount of two things on either side of a scale. Boundaries keep one of those things from oozing past the edge of its platter and taking over the other side...
Boundaries and integration go together. Maybe it's just the biologist in me, but it seems that good boundaries are what make integration work. Just as functional membranes (letting the right things through and keeping the wrong things out) facilitate the healthy interaction of the cells of our bodies, so do functional personal boundaries facilitate the healthy interaction of the various parts of our lives. Bad boundaries lead to either being overwhelmed or withdrawal. Good boundaries lead to wholeness and synergy.
This concept is central to my life (and was the key theme of Part 3 in last year's series on Happiness, Excellence & Boundaries: A Framework for Leaders.) I'm the first person to admit that I don't live a "balanced" life. And I don't want a balanced life. I love my work as an executive coach--it's immensely fulfilling, and almost all-consuming, and that's just fine with me. I don't need a host of other activities to balance the amount of time and energy that I dedicate to my profession.
But I do need clear and firm boundaries that allow me to "let the right things through and keep the wrong things out" when that's most important to me. So what do these boundaries look like in practice? One example is the ability to block out time on my daily calendar to go to the gym or go for a run. What matters to me most isn't the balance that comes from working out (although that's a meaningful by-product), but the boundary that's established when I commit that time to one purpose and prohibit others from encroaching.
Many of the MBAs I work with at Stanford and many of the leaders I work with in my private practice are people who share this mindset--they're passionate about their work, and they're never going to live balanced lives, and that's usually just fine with them. But things won't be fine if they're unable to establish, manage and maintain the boundaries that allow them to live lives of "wholeness and synergy," as Michael would say.
Photo by David Ludwig. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.