- The way I see it:
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, a very powerful book that I highly recommend, shells what behavioural science can teach us about habits, decision making, and continuous improvement. In one of his popular articles, he writes about the The Four Burners Theory, a way of thinking about work-life balance that stemmed from a David Sedaris' article in the New Yorker.
It can sound pretty discouraging and somehow unacceptable for some of us, and you might probably reveal against it, but it has a point my dear. Life is full of trade-offs, every choice has a cost, and no, I am sorry, we can't have it all. Main ideas below, be nice and give it a chance.
One way to think about work-life balance is with a concept known as The Four Burners Theory.
- The first burner represents your family.
- The second burner is your friends.
- The third burner is your health.
- 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.” 1
Soon I realized I was inventing these workarounds because I didn't want to face the real issue: life is filled with tradeoffs. If you want to excel in your work and in your marriage, then your friends and your health may have to suffer. If you want to be healthy and succeed as a parent, then you might be forced to dial back your career ambitions. Of course, you are free to divide your time equally among all four burners, but you have to accept that you will never reach your full potential in any given area.
My initial reaction to The Four Burners Theory was to search for a way to bypass it. “Can I succeed and keep all four burners running?” I wondered.
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?
What is the best way to handle these work-life balance problems? I don't claim to have it figured out, but here are three ways of thinking about The Four Burners Theory.
Option 1: Outsource Burners
Outsourcing small portions of your life allows you to save time and spend it elsewhere. Can you apply the same idea to one quadrant of your life and free up time to focus on the other three burners?
The advantage of outsourcing is that you can keep the burner running without spending your time on it. Unfortunately, removing yourself from the equation is also a disadvantage.
Outsourcing keeps the burner running, but is it running in a meaningful way?
Option 2: Embrace Constraints
One of the most frustrating parts of The Four Burners Theory is that it shines a light on your untapped potential. It can be easy to think, “If only I had more time, I could make more money or get in shape or spend more time at home.”
One way to manage this problem is to shift your focus from wishing you had more time to maximizing the time you have. In other words, you embrace your limitations. The question to ask yourself is, “Assuming a particular set of constraints, how can I be as effective as possible?”
This line of questioning pulls your focus toward something positive (getting the most out of what you have available) rather than something negative (worrying about never having enough time).
Of course, there are disadvantages as well. Embracing constraints means accepting that you are operating at less than your full potential.
Option 3: The Seasons of Life
A third way to manage your four burners is by breaking your life into seasons. What if, instead of searching for perfect work-life balance at all times, you divided your life into seasons that focused on a particular area?
Work-Life Balance: Which Burners Have You Cut Off?
The Four Burners Theory reveals a truth everyone must deal with: nobody likes being told they can't have it all, but everyone has constraints on their time and energy. Every choice has a cost.
- Jamesclear.com, by James Clear,