Finding Work-Life Balance With the Four-Torch Theory

One way to think about work-life balance issues is to use a concept known as the Four Burners Theory. This is how it was first explained to me: Imagine that your life is represented by a stove with four burners on it. Each burner represents one large quadrant of your life.

  1. The first burner represents your family.
  2. The second burner is your friends.
  3. The third burner is your health.
  4. The fourth burner is your job.

The four-burner theory states: “To be successful, you must turn off one of your burners. And to really succeed, you need to cut two. “

Three views of four burners

My first reaction to The Four Burners Theory was to find a way around it. “Can I succeed and keep all four burners working?” I asked.

Perhaps I can combine the two burners. “What if I group family and friends into one category?”

Maybe I can combine health and work. “I’ve heard that sitting all day is bad for your health. What if I have a permanent table? “Now I know what you are thinking. Believing that you will be healthy because you bought a standing table is like believing that you are a rebel because you ignored the airplane seat belt sign, but whatever.

I soon realized that I was inventing these workarounds because I didn’t want to face the real problem: life is full of compromises. If you want to excel at work and in marriage, your friends and your health may have to suffer. If you want to be healthy and successful as a parent, you may have to give up your career ambitions. Of course, you can split your time equally between all four burners, but you have to admit that you can never reach your full potential in any particular area.

In fact, we are forced to choose. Would you rather live an unbalanced yet successful life in a specific area? Or would you rather live a balanced life but never maximize your potential in this quadrant?

What’s the best way to deal with these work-life balance issues? I don’t pretend to figure it out, but here are three ways to think about the four-burner theory.

Option 1. Burner outsourcing

We outsource small aspects of our lives all the time. We buy fast food so we don’t need to cook. We go to the dry cleaner to save time on the laundry. We visit a car repair shop, so we don’t have to fix our own car.

Outsourcing small parts of your life allows you to save time and spend it elsewhere. Can you apply the same idea to one quadrant of your life and free up time to focus on the other three burners?

Work is the best example. For many, work is the hottest burner on the stove. This is where they spend the most time, and this is the last burner to turn off. In theory, entrepreneurs and business owners could outsource burner work. They do this by hiring employees.

In my article Three Stages of Failure, I told Sam Carpenter’s story of building business systems that only allowed him to work 2 hours a week. He was distracted from the day-to-day work of the business while continuing to reap the financial benefits.

Parenting is another example. Working parents are often forced to outsource the family burner by sending their children to daycare or hiring a nanny. It may seem unfair to resort to this outsourcing, but just like the work example above, parents pay someone else to keep the burner on while they use their time elsewhere.

The advantage of outsourcing is that you can keep the burner up and running without wasting time. Unfortunately, excluding yourself from this equation is also a disadvantage. I know that most entrepreneurs, artists and creators would be bored and pointless if they didn’t have something to work on every day. All parents I know would rather spend time with their children than send them to kindergarten.

Outsourcing keeps the burner running, but does it work in a meaningful way?

Option 2: accept the constraints

One of the most frustrating parts of the four-burner theory is that it sheds light on your untapped potential. It’s easy to think, “If I had more time, I could make more money, get in shape, or spend more time at home.”

One way to deal with this problem is to shift the focus from wanting to have more time to making the most of it. In other words, you accept your limitations. The question to ask yourself is, “Given a certain set of constraints, how can I be as effective as possible?”

For instance:

  • Assuming I can only work from 9 am to 5 pm, how can I make as much money as possible?
  • Assuming I can only write 15 minutes a day, how can I finish the book as quickly as possible?
  • Assuming I can only train 3 hours a week, how do I get to my best shape?

This line of questions focuses your attention on something positive (getting the most out of what you have) rather than something negative (worrying that you will never have enough time). Moreover, well thought out limits can actually improve your productivity .

Of course, there are also disadvantages. Accepting limitations means accepting that you are not working at full capacity. Yes, there are many ways to “work smarter, not harder,” but it’s hard to avoid the fact that where you spend your time matters. If you spend more time on your health, relationships, or career, you are likely to see improved results in this area.

Option 3: Seasons

The third way to manage your four burners is to break your life down into the seasons. What if, instead of constantly striving for the perfect work-life balance, you divide your life into seasons focused on a specific area?

The importance of burners can change throughout a lifetime. When you’re in your 20s or 30s and don’t have kids, it may be easier to get to the gym and pursue career ambitions. Health and work burners are working at full capacity. A few years later, you can start a family and suddenly the health burner will drop to a slow boil while your family burner gets more gas. Another ten years pass, and you can restore relationships with old friends or implement the business idea that you put off.

You don’t have to give up your dreams forever, but life rarely allows you to keep all four burners running at the same time. Maybe you need to let go of something this season. You can do all of this in your entire life, but not at the same time. In the words of Nathan Barry , “Commit yourself to your goal with all you have — for a while.”

For the past five years, I’ve been in entrepreneurship season. I built a successful business, but it came at a price. I turned off my friends’ fire and my family is only half working.

What season are you in now?

Work-life balance: which burners have you turned off?

The Four Burners Theory reveals a discrepancy that everyone has to deal with: no one likes to be told they can’t have it all, but everyone has time and energy constraints. Each choice has its own price.

Which burners have you turned off?

The Four Burners Theory: The Downside of Work-Life Balance | James Clear


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