The Four Burners Theory of Work-Life Balance Cover

The Four Burners Theory of Work-Life Balance

Imagine there’s an old stove in your house. It’s square and has four burners.

You know, the kind where you still have to light the gas with a match and pull your hand away really fast so you don’t get burned. Each of those burners represents an important area of your life:

  1. Family.
  2. Friends.
  3. Health.
  4. Work.

So far, so good. There’s only one problem. According to the original New Yorker article first mentioning the concept:

“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.”

Ouch. That hurts. But it makes perfect sense. It stings because it’s true.

If you’ve ever neglected your health in favor of work, your family in favor of friends, or those friends accused you of totally disappearing into your new relationship, then you know what I’m talking about.

So which burners do you turn up? Which ones down? Do you feel drawn to the idea of cranking one up all the way? How about letting one die out?

These are tough questions. Questions James Clear has thought about a lot. In an article popularizing this idea, he offers multiple approaches:

  1. Be imbalanced. Just sacrifice one of the burners completely and accept it. If your work, money, or your legacy is super important to you, maybe you can learn to live without many friends or being super healthy and fit.
  2. Be average. Leave all burners on their lowest setting so you can manage. You’ll have a balanced life, but are unlikely to go far in any particular area.
  3. Outsource things. If you’re rich, you can hire a chef, a trainer, etc. This has constraints too — if a nanny raises your kids, who will they become?
  4. Cap your gas. Set limits for each burner that allow you to feel alright with the overall arrangement. “I’ll work 70 hours a week, but not a minute more,” “Monday night is date night,” etc.

If all these make you go “meh,” that’s because they’re all weak attempts at fighting a limitation we can never ever get around:

Life consists entirely of tradeoffs.

This fact will never change. It’s something we have to make peace with. That’s the crux of the matter: As long as we mentally and emotionally fight this constraint of nature, we can’t be happy, no matter how we adjust our burners.

Once we embrace it, however, we can approach it in a way that’ll not just feel satisfying, but actually make us happier: We can live our life in seasons. This idea comes from Nathan Barry and it’s a powerful way of feeling good about the sacrifices we make.

It may be true that we’ll always have to make tradeoffs, but nowhere does it say we have to stick with the same tradeoffs forever. We can choose them for a certain time, then change our mind. We can play with the burners.

When you’re a kid, life is all family and friends. In college, friends and health take over. As you launch your career, it’s all about work and health. Later, you revert to family and friends, maybe have a second career wind in your 50s.

Who knows? The choice is yours. And that’s the point:

The Four Burners Theory is one of many ways to frame life’s endless tradeoffs. Whichever lens you pick to look at the problem, you’ll have to keep changing both it and the resulting compromises that allow you to make progress.

You might cruise on the all-average setting for two decades before becoming an endurance athlete. You might feel more comfortable with fewer friends after investing heavily in them in your 20s. Nothing is perfect nor lasts forever.

Don’t fight this transience. Temporality is one of life’s best mechanisms. Nature invented seasons so each of the animals could have its time in the sun. If we manage ours right, so will we.

And if we watch the flames on our stove, maybe, we won’t even get burned.