Use the ‘4 Burners Theory’ for Better Work-Life Balance

You can have everything — just not all at once

“You can have anything, but not everything.” Chances are, you’ve had this realization. Perhaps once your life was 100% devoted to work, but then you had children, or you’d always spent your weekends hanging out with friends, but then started focusing on getting a company off the ground.

I prefer the saying: “You can have everything, just not all at once.” I recently learned of a framework that incorporates this idea into a really practical action plan. It’s called the four burners theory, and it can help you arrange your work and life in a way that aligns with your big-picture goals.

Imagine a gas stove with four burners. Each one represents a primary aspect of your life: work, family, friends, and health. According to the theory, which has unknown origins but was explained by David Sedaris in a 2009 New Yorker story, if you want to be successful in one area, you must turn off one burner. If you want to be world-class, you’ll have to turn off two.

It makes sense. Every successful person has had to make some sacrifices in their relationships or their health. For some people, it’s easy to turn off a burner. (Sedaris writes about his friend Pat, who has no bitterness about cutting off her parents, both severe alcoholics.) But for a lot of us, the choice feels impossible.

What helps me is not turning any of my burners off, but adjusting all of them. I imagine my time and energy as a store of gas for the stove. I have 100% to allot: Which burners will they go to? Right now, my burners are at about 70% work, 20% family, and 5% each for health and friends. It’s sobering to write it out this way, but it’s good to know where you stand . You can see whether your balance aligns with your goals.

For me, it does — for now. This leads to an important point: You don’t have to stick with the same balance forever. You can change your mind. You can always fiddle with the burners.

In a blog post about the theory, author James Clear offers different (albeit imperfect) solutions for these work-balance problems: You might keep your burners running by outsourcing help — for instance, hiring additional employees can give you more time to focus on your family or health, or various childcare options can give you some space to work. Or you can accept that you are always going to be operating at less than your full potential in every area of your life.

My favorite way to to balance the burners is one that Clear’s friend Nathan Barry writes about. He realized he 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.”

You can think of your life in seasons as well. In nature, seasons exist so that all animals can have their time in the sun. If you manage your life well, all of the most important parts of it will, too.

One way to do this is to picture the full spectrum of your life. When you’re young and single, 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. Or you can follow the actual seasons. Productivity and time management expert Laura Vanderkam sets quarterly personal goals, making adjustments as necessary. Maybe you’ll dial your family burner to 70% in the spring and summer, but turn it to 50% in the fall and winter.

So, how will you adjust your burners?

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. For my best articles & book updates, go here:

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