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Considering the “four burners” theory and the trade-offs of success

James Clear, a writer and thought-leader on human behaviour and productivity, recently wrote about the “four burners” theory. This theory proposes that your life is made up of four quadrants, like four burners on a stove. Those four quadrants are family, friends, health, and work.

The four burners theory maintains that if you want to be successful, you can’t have all four burners going at once. You have to cut one off. Further, if you want to be even more successful, you’ll have to cut off two.

Clear confesses that, at first, he wanted to find workarounds, so he could keep all four burners going and still be successful. For example, combining burners—such as friends and health, or health and work—but he eventually comes to terms with what the theory is telling him about choice:

“Essentially, we are forced to choose. Would you rather live a life that is unbalanced, but high-performing in a certain area? Or would you rather live a life that is balanced, but never maximizes your potential in a given quadrant?”

This article made sense to me, and got me thinking about issues around work-life balance—especially for creative types—and the choices we all have to make about what aspects of our life we need to focus on.

Work-life balance shouldn’t be the goal.

We are not bottomless wells of energy. We can only spend so much of our attention and energy and focus on at a time, and can’t keep up all aspects of our life on “full gas.” That way lies stress, resentment, and eventually burnout. But as Clear notes, aiming for balance might mean that you aren’t excelling in any one area.

Ideally, we should strive to put the right amount of energy towards the specific quadrants of our lives where we want to excel, when it makes sense—but it can’t happen all the time. You can’t give everything equal power—sometimes, certain parts of your life will take priority, and you will have to focus on them with as much attention as needed, for as long as needed.

Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer of workforce productivity at Morneau Shepell maintains that there is no work-life balance. For Howatt, it’s all about blending your time. He says, “Most of us don’t live in two separate worlds where at work we focus only on work and at home we focus only on home.”

This blending concept resonated with me. After all, as much as I wind up working from home in evenings and on weekends, I am often “homing from work” during business hours. There is no clear and definite separation, thanks to technology and the changing expectations of the workplace.

Instead of finding some elusive sense of balance, Howatt recommends using the tools of awareness, accountability, and action to find the perfect blend across all the burners or quadrants of your life.

The perfect blend comes down to choice.

When I first read Clear’s article, I found myself hung up on the fact that the four burners model doesn’t accurately represent my life.

As someone who currently works full-time, runs a few small businesses, writes in the wee hours, and pursues a variety of other projects and initiatives, I find the “work” label too simplistic.

What’s more, I also volunteer. Is that work? Friends? Health?

Some people get great meaning and fulfillment out of their spirituality, and attend services and events related to their faith community. Where’s the burner for that?

But in the end, I realized I was missing the point. The specific burners don’t matter. What matters is that it’s ultimately up to me to decide where and when to apply my energy and focus, and to make peace with the fact that I can’t give my all to everything at once.

My stove might have six burners: family, friends, work, creating, health, and volunteering. Yours might be different. The thing to remember is that no matter what burners you have on your stove, you will have to choose which ones to ramp up and which ones to dial down.

For Clear, it’s all about trade-offs.  Am I okay with pulling back on my creative pursuits while I focus on my volunteer commitments? Can I give my partner less attention than my current business plan and still feel okay with it? If not, what strategies can I use to manage my burners more effectively?

And as Howatt says, we should strive for blending rather than balance, and stay tuned in to how we’re applying our energy.

What do you think about the four burners theory? Does the idea of work-life-etc. “blending” resonate with you? Can you use these concepts to move toward success and productivity?

Maria