Use the Four Burners Theory to Achieve Healthy Work-Life Balance

A new way to look at the big picture

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Everything in life is a tradeoff. Every waking second, you’re trading different options against one another.

Whatever you pursue — be it with your thoughts, your time, or your energy — prohibits you from pursuing something else.

Millions of these tradeoffs are microscopic and thus happen on autopilot. You scratch your back, grab your keys, and before you know it, you’re done showering.

Unfortunately, the auto-pilot often takes over much bigger, more important tradeoffs, which would actually require conscious thought. Case in point: If you never make the tradeoff between your work, health, and relationships, life will do it for you.

If your first job demands a lot of hours and you’re a diligent person, you might end up spending a lot of hours at any other job you’ll hold in the future — just because you’re used to it. If you’re an athlete as a teenager, you might never let go of your hardcore workout regimen — even after your professional aspirations change. If you’ve spent all your weekends with friends since high school, starting a family will take a conscious effort.

In 2009, David Sedaris shared a framework in a New Yorker Article, which will help you make these big picture tradeoffs more deliberately: The four burners theory.

Imagine a gas stove with four burners. Each one stands for a big aspect of life: Work, family, friends, and health. According to the theory, if you want to be successful in one area, you must turn off another. If you want to be world-class, you’ll have to turn off two.

If you think about the people you know, this’ll make intuitive sense. Chances are, whoever’s a successful entrepreneur or has a great career will have made some sacrifices in their relationships or their health. Your fittest, most popular friends might not make the most money, and healthy, family-focused parents might not go out a lot.

How will you adjust your burners? What’s most important to you?

I find it helps to imagine my time and energy as a store of gas I can use for the stove. I have 100% to allot — which burners will they go to? Right now, it’s about 70% work, 20% family, and 5% for health and friends. This is both sobering and encouraging to realize. It’s good to know where you stand — and whether that stance aligns with your goals.

For me — for now — it does, which leads to another important point: Life consists entirely of tradeoffs, but you don’t have to stick with the same tradeoffs forever. We can change our mind. We can fiddle with the burners.

In an article about the theory, James Clear suggests multiple coping mechanisms, from accepting imbalance and sacrificing one or two burners to being average and turning up all burners a little bit to outsourcing things and setting constraints — but he admits: All of these are unsatisfying.

There is, however, a way to mitigate the frustrating nature of these important compromises: Live your life in seasons.

One day in his car, Clear’s friend Nathan Barry realized that, if podcasts could produce their shows in seasons, he too could produce his work in seasons: “Instead of trying to do everything at once, dedicate seasons of your life to one thing. The first season of my career was about design. The next one was about writing. I don’t know what future seasons will be about. Becoming an artist? A musician? Each of those ideas — and many others — fascinate me.”

Barry, in turn, references Derek Sivers, who says the seasons idea is bigger than just work — it expands to all of life. To make his point, Sivers shares a famous parable: “Buridan’s donkey is standing halfway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. It keeps looking left and right, trying to decide between hay and water. Unable to decide, it eventually dies of hunger and thirst.”

While a donkey can’t imagine the future, you and I can. We know we can first drink some water, then eat some hay. “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years,” Sivers says. “Don’t be a donkey. Think long-term. Use the future.”

When it comes to the four burners theory, long-term thinking means adjusting your burners in seasons. When you’re young, single, and healthy, you might want to focus a lot on work. As your career matures, you might run work on a smaller flame in favor of health and family, and then shift it back to charity work and health as you get older.

Just like the four burners theory is only one way to look at and make life’s never-ending tradeoffs, whatever setting you’ve unconsciously chosen at the outset of adulthood is not fixed in place. You can — and will have to — change it many times throughout your life.

There are two anonymous sayings, each representing a holistic outlook on life. The first is: “You can have anything — but not everything.” The second is: “You can have everything — just not all at once.” The four burners theory can make the difference between the former and the latter.

Nature invented seasons so each of the animals could have its day in the sun. If we manage ours well, I’m sure we will too.

-Nik

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