Work-life balance is a buzzword these days, and it seems everyone is striving for it. Employers are mindful of the concept when contemplating increased engagement, and employees think it’s the answer to ever-mounting stress levels. Everyone wants the best of both worlds: a challenging, fulfilling and successful career, and a happy, healthy, meaningful home life.
One way many attempt to pull off this elusive work-life balance is to create strict boundaries for themselves and to sharply compartmentalize the two, often conflicting, roles.
No mobile devices at the dinner table. No non-emergent personal calls at work. Fully disconnecting on vacation. Strict schedules of dedicated time to each role, without interruption.
The approach means to increase our effectiveness in both roles by sharply dividing our energy and attention through a strict set of rules and boundaries. The theory goes that if we give our undivided attention to one role at a time, at the specific times allotted, we’ll be more efficient (and fulfilled) in both.
But is this approach working? New research suggests perhaps not.
There’s an important concept to grasp in order to understand why this theory of segmenting roles might not be as effective as we once believed. It’s called cognitive role transition, which is used to describe moments when we’re actively engaged in one role and then momentarily distracted by thoughts of the other.
An example would be sitting in a meeting and remembering you forgot your child’s dentist appointment. Or while at a basketball game with your family, you remember you have to send a certain email. These are cognitive role transitions.
The trouble is, a new study shows that our attempts at distinctly segmenting our lives may be making it harder to recover from these transitions.The more sharply we separate our roles, the more disruptive these seemingly simple and fleeting thoughts can become.
The study found that these cognitive role transitions are inevitable. And although they occur more frequently when roles are more fully integrated, they’re also less disruptive. They actually impair our job performance less than when our roles are fully segmented.
While those who separate responsibilities may experience the transitions themselves less, they’re more likely to interfere with productivity and efficiency. Separate, it seems, makes it harder to transition.
Sharper distinctions between work and life may be more damaging to job performance because they make it harder to handle these inevitable transitions when they occur.
Perhaps we should simply stop striving for the perfect amount of work-life balance in the first place. Maybe the key is to integrate more fully so that the inevitable interruptions to each side of life become less and less disruptive to the other.