The 4 Burners Theory

A balanced life is lived in seasons

two silver kettle burning

Imagine there’s an old stove in your house. It’s square and has four burners. You know, the kind where you still have to light the gas with a match and pull your hand away really fast so you don’t get burned.

Each of those burners represents an important area of your life:

  1. Family.

  2. Friends.

  3. Health.

  4. Work.

Now here comes the plot twist. According to the original New Yorker article:

“In order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”

Ouch. That hurts. But it’s also true. If your friends ever accused you of “totally disappearing” into your relationship or you neglected your health in favor of work, you know what I’m talking about.

So which burners do you turn up? Which flames do you allow to die out? James Clear, who popularized this idea, thought about what we can do:

  1. Be imbalanced. Just sacrifice one of the burners and accept it.

  2. Be average. Leave all burners on their lowest setting so you can manage.

  3. Outsource things. If you’re rich, you can hire a chef, a trainer, etc.

  4. Cap your gas. “I’ll work 70 hours a week, but not a minute more.”

If all these make you go “meh,” that’s because they’re all weak attempts at fighting a limitation we can never ever get around:

Life consists entirely of tradeoffs.

That will never change. It’s something we have to make peace with. What we can do once we’ve done so, however, is to pick our tradeoffs for a certain time.

Nowhere does it say you have to stick with the same two burners forever. Yesterday, we learned from Gandhi that it’s important to remember tomorrow. That, to do everything we want to in life, we’ll have to live it in seasons.

The Four Burners Theory is one of many ways to frame life’s tradeoffs. But you can change all of these tradeoffs for different periods of your life.

When you’re a kid, life is all family and friends. In college, friends and health take over. Then, it’s all about work and health. And then back to family and friends. The choice is yours.

Nature invented seasons so each of the animals could have their time in the sun.

If we time ours right, so will we. Maybe, we won’t even get burned.


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