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Finding a comfortable work-life balance is often a challenge. There are always constraints on our time, energy and resources. ‘Doing it all’ is a grand idea, but it’s rarely sustainable. Enter the Four Burners Theory.
The origin of this simple theory seems illusive. After a quick Google search, the earliest I can find it mentioned is in an article in The New Yorker, by David Sedaris back in 2009, but Sedaris credits an Australian woman named Pat... who learned of the theory at a conference. Regardless, it's making the rounds in the 'living your best life' space.
I first heard about this stove reference for finding balance in life, a little over a year ago. Since then, (as the Universe would have it) it’s been popping up in posts and conversations quite regularly. Seems the four burner theory is still enjoying it’s moment.
If you haven't heard of it...
Picture a stove… not a real one, but a symbolic one. The stove has four burners.
This quote from David Sedaris' article sums up the theory…
~"One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work." The gist… is 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.~
The message is clear, and though humans spend lots of time trying to ignore it…we can’t do it all and do it all well, all of the time.
If you’re anything like me, this ‘theory’ didn’t sit very well at first. In fact, it really bugged me. You see, one of the quickest ways to get my ‘resistance’ all riled up is to tell me that I can’t do it all!
Note: This is only when I’m foolishly thinking that I can do it all. The exact reverse is true if I’m thinking I’m not capable of doing something… then telling me 'I can’t' makes us instant besties.
So… I gave the four burner theory a quick think and went about my business convinced that if I wanted to do it all… and do it all exceptionally well, then I would! That simple.
Well, let’s just say I’ve had a change of heart. I’ve softened my resistance to the four burner theory.
Here’s the deal…
I guess I was irritated at the idea that I’d have to completely ‘turn off’ one or two burners in order to be really successful with the other two.
I mean, FAMILY, FRIENDS, WORK, HEALTH... those quadrants really do make up our entire lives. How could I possibly be expected to shut down an area that was so vital? That didn’t sound to me like the way to create an amazing life.
After a deep breath, I decided to explore the history of my own work-life balance...
I looked at my life over the past 20 years and realized that long before I ever learned about the actual theory, I was living it’s message by default.
Out of necessity, I’d learned to let some parts of my life simmer while others would bubble at an active boil. And sometimes the pilot light on one side of the stove would extinguish completely… thus shutting down two burners until there was time to find a match:-)
In revisiting the four burner theory, I can see that my issue with this concept is unfounded. My resistance is silly.
The reality is not everything in life can be a priority at the same time.
And if we attempt to work at a full boil in all four important areas at once… something is going to burn, or spill over and make a mess that we don’t have time to clean up.
So, as my Grandpa Carl used to say to his nine rambunctious grandchildren… “Simmer down”.
After a bit more research on this concept. I have a fresh outlook.
James Clear offers three ways of thinking about the needs of our four burners…
I recently finished a project I’d been working on for several months. My work burner was roaring. Yet, when I was raising my babies, my work burner was ice cold.
Likewise, with three teenagers... my parenting burner is usually at a mere simmer these days. While the health burner has been heating up as I explore changes in my diet and exercise to make aging more fun.
This month, I plan to turn up the heat on the family burner. Greta returns home from college next week, I'll have all of my kids home for Mother's Day, my mom is coming to visit, Matthew and I will celebrate our 22nd wedding anniversary. Family time at a happy, rolling boil.
I'll also be keeping an eye on the health burner... there's a beach vacation coming and that will require working out at a higher temperature:-)
What are your thoughts about the Four Burners Theory?
Which burner is on high for you right now?
Happy May! Thanks for being here.