Have you heard about The Four Burners Theory? It’s a way of thinking about work-life balance that stemmed from a David Sedaris article in the New Yorker.

Here’s the basic concept — imagine your life is represented by a stove with four burners on it.

Each burner symbolises one major 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 work.

The Four Burners Theory says that 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.

Which Two Would You Choose?

It’s a really difficult choice!

If you decide that family and work are the most important — then you need to sacrifice your friends and health.

If you decide family and friends are the most important — then you need to sacrifice your career and health.

Overall, the theory is all about trade-offs.

Three Options for the Four Burners Theory

Author and productivity guru, James Clear, discusses three ways of thinking about The Four Burners Theory.

1. Outsource Burners

James reminds us that we outsource stuff every day such as buying convenience food instead of cooking to save time.

He wonders if you can apply this to one burner but the question then is, “is it running in a meaningful way?”.

2. Embrace Constraints

James suggests we should focus on the positive (getting the most out of what we have available) rather than worrying about not having enough time.

The thinking is — by embracing your limitations, you can maximise the time you have.

3. The Seasons of Life

James proposes that instead of searching for the perfect work-life balance, you divide your life into seasons where you are focused on a particular area.

Burners will change in importance as we grow older and possibly become parents.

As hard we try, it’s impossible to keep all four burners going at once so sometimes you need to let go of one or two for a period of time.

“You can do many things in life,
just not all at the same time.”

Source: James Clear

Final Thoughts

The Four Burners Theory reveals a difficult truth we all must deal with. Despite how hard we try, due to time and energy constraints, we can’t have it all!

Whilst I fully agree with this element, I’m not sure I would say that to be successful (however we define that) we need to turn off one burner and to be really successful, we must turn off two.

Perhaps instead of turning the burners off we can turn them down a little and adopt James’ seasons of life approach. This seems like a more balanced approach than turning off at least one quadrant completely.

I visited Copenhagen last summer and learned a new word, hygge, which translates as a feeling of cosiness and is created by practising simplicity methods.

The Danes are consistently ranked amongst the happiest people in the world! They work shorter weeks, explore the outdoors and spend quality time with friends and family.

If your work burner is on max, consider turning it down a notch and spending some time on the other quadrants of life – family, friends and health… You might just bring a bit of hygge into your life!

Related: How to Focus and Get More Done!

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