Today I would like to write about the Four Burners theory. Imagine if your life is represented by a stove with four burners. The burners symbolize each major part of your life. The four burners represent family, friends, work, and health each. The theory suggests that in order to be successful in life you will have to cut off one of your burners, or to be really successful, you have to cut off two.
Initially you would wonder if you can succeed and still keep all of them burning. What if you could combine friends and family in one category? But life doesn’t work that way. If you want to excel in your career and focus on your marriage and kids, your health may suffer. If you want to stay fit and succeed as a parent then you might be forced to dial back on your career. But you can now say that you are free to divide your time among all the four burners equally, but you have to face it that you can’t reach your maximum potential in one area then. So now, do you want to live life that is unbalanced but at least high performing in one arena or lead a life that is balanced but never truly identify or maximize your full potential?
So how do we handle this theory in reality? Firstly, we outsource the burners. Say, we buy fast food so we don’t have to cook, we go to the car repair shop so we don’t have to fix the car ourselves. Outsourcing small portions of your life saves you a lot of time. But does it work here? For most of us, work is the hottest burner, it is where we spend most of our time, and it is the last burner to be turned off. Entrepreneurs and business owners outsource their work by hiring employees. You can do this in parenting too. Working parents are forced to drop off their kids at a daycare or hire a babysitter. The only advantage of outsourcing is that you can keep the burner running without spending your time on it, but it has an obvious disadvantage. Most artists or entrepreneurs would be bored if they had nothing to work on everyday. Every parent would rather spend time with their kids than send them off to daycare. Outsourcing can keep the burner running, but is it in a meaningful way?
The worst part of this theory sheds light on untapped potential. People frequently think: “if only I had more time, I could make more money or get in good shape or spend more time at home.” But, guess what, time is very limited. All you can do here is to maximize the time you have instead of complaining. Embrace your limitations. Assuming I work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., how can I make the most money possible and spend quality time at home, assuming I can only exercise for four hours weekly, how can I get in the best shape possible. This line of questioning pulls your focus towards the positive (getting the most out of what you already have) rather than something negative (worrying about never having enough time). But again, time is a cursed thing. If you invest more time in your health or your career, you would likely to see result improve mainly in these areas leaving family and friends behind.
The importance of your burners will change throughout life. In your 20s and 30s the health and career burners are on full blast while later on, when you start a family, your health burner simmers down, and your family burner gets the most gas. Another decade passes, and you want to revive your old college friendships since now you can put in time for that.
You don’t have to give up on your dreams forever, but life rarely allows you to keep all the four burners burning all at once. Maybe you need to let go of something for this season. And it is better to go all-in on a given burner for a few years than a lukewarm effort on it for like 50 years. Every choice you make in life comes with a cost. Which burner(s) have you cut off recently?