We take a look at the Four Burners theory …
I recently came across an article on Facebook (shared by a Business Chicks member) about an idea called Four Burners theory. The interesting thing is, when I dug deeper, no one actually knows whose idea it is. The closest thing anyone has ever come to working out where it came from is that an Australian woman named Pat heard it at a management seminar she attended. So if you’re Pat, or were at the same seminar, please get in touch, the world wants to know where the concept came from!
Four Burners theory is a different way to think about those cringe-worthy words: work/life balance and juggle.
Imagine that your life is represented by a four-burner stove, each burner symbolises a major part of your life:
The theory says that in order to be successful, you have to turn off one of your burners. And if you want to be really successful, you have to turn off two. It suggests you’ve only got enough energy to keep two firing full flame. If you do decide to spread your energy across all four burners, you need to understand that means you can’t give your all and reach your full potential in any of them. It’s harsh, but for many of us, a reality too. The question you need to ask yourself is, do you want to live a life that is unbalanced, but where you are high-performing in one area, or do you want a life that is balanced, but never maximises your potential in any of the four areas? It’s kind of like choosing between a rock and a hard place. This theory can often work at a subconscious level; we sometimes don’t realise we’re turning off burners until they’re put completely out and are hard to ignite again.
James Clear, who writes about the science of human behaviour, came up with three different ways to think about Four Burner Theory and kind of, sort of, get around it.
We outsource small parts of our lives every week. We buy ready to eat meals, we might have a cleaner come, or send our clothes off to be dry cleaned, but can you outsource whole quadrants to free up time to focus on the others? Well, I’d say it’s almost impossible to outsource your health or friends – they’re both things that require face to face time. But what about work? For many of us, work is the hottest burner on the stove. Many entrepreneurs and business owners can outsource work – that’s what employees are for. But most entrepreneurs and business owners would lose their purpose if they outsourced it all. Outsourcing when you talk about parenting or caring for elderly parents sounds a bit yuk, but that’s what we’re doing when we send our kids to childcare or hire a career for our mum – we’re paying someone else to keep that burner going while we spend our time somewhere else. James writes on his blog, “Outsourcing keeps the burner running, but is it running in a meaningful way?”
James says our second option is to embrace the constraints the theory puts on us. He writes, “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.”
What we need to do is flip this thinking; how can we actually maximise the limited time we do have? How can I be as effective as possible in the time I do have?
- If I can only work from 9am-5pm what are the tasks that will make me the most money?
- If I can only work out for two hours each week, how can I get as fit as possible?
- If I can only spend an hour a day with my partner, how can I make it most meaningful?
These type of questions force you to focus on something positive, rather than something negative, like worrying you never have enough time. This kind of thinking also feeds into the idea that well-designed limitation can actually improve performance, so capitalise on that.
James does say though, that, “Embracing constraints means accepting that you are operating at less than your full potential. Yes, there are plenty of ways to “work smarter, not harder” but it is difficult to avoid the fact that where you spend your time matters. If you invested more time into your health or your relationships or your career, you would likely see improved results in that area.”
The seasons of life
Our third option for managing the four burners is to break our life into seasons – the thought that you can ‘have it all’, just not all at once. The importance of each burner changes throughout your life – and the beautiful thing about a stove is that you can turn down, up, on and off each burner as you choose.
Early on in your career you might not have children, so you can have your work and health burner blazing hot. If you have kids, the health burner might be turned down to a simmer as the family burner requires more gas. Twenty years later you might be able to ramp up your friends burner and give more energy to work again too. James says, “You don’t have to give up on your dreams forever, but life rarely allows you to keep all four burners going at once. Maybe you need to let go of something for this season. You can do it all in a lifetime, but not at the same damn time.”
For Business Chicks, this truth is often hard to hear, giving less than our all is something most of us aren’t comfortable with. I would go one step further with this theory and argue that to truly succeed in one quadrant, the other three have to be turned off. Although deep down we know it, none of us like being told we can’t have it all. But every choice we make about where to focus our energy has an equal cost – that energy needs to be pulled from somewhere else. So, have you turned any of your burners off, or are you cooking with all four? Maybe you’re trying to combine all four and have turned your stove into a firepit?