What is the Four Burners Theory?
As far as I can tell, the Four Burners Theory originated in this 2009 article in The New Yorker. The burners are referring to the burners on a stove. “Not a real stove but a symbolic one.”
‘One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.’ The gist, she said, was 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.
Other Interpretations of the Four Burners Theory
The interesting thing about the Four Burners Theory is that it only includes broad subjects: family, friends, health, and work. And, it’s limited to four.
James Clear says, “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?” He offers three options: 1) outsource burners, 2) embrace your constraints/limitations, and 3) break your life into seasons of imbalance.
John Richardson describes a fifth burner: “In our analogy, the central burner is purpose. The stovetop griddle is a balanced life.”
A different approach is one that focuses on roles. Last year I took a course at work called The 5 Choices of Extraordinary Productivity by FranklinCovey. If I recall correctly, one of the exercises was to pick roughly 5 words to describe yourself. The page listed off about 100 words as thought starters — things like spouse, friend, parent, leader, athlete, etc.
The challenge was to narrow down the list of roles you play in life.
By limiting the number of roles you could pick to describe yourself, it was saying essentially the same thing as the Four Burners Theory. You can’t excel at everything. You can’t be everything to everyone. By intentionally choosing your roles, it forces focus, encourages balance, and hopefully reminds you on a daily basis what matters most to you.
How would you define your 4 burners or 5 life roles? Remember, there are only 24 hours in a day. Don’t worry about identifying roles now that you think may change in the future. Your roles will evolve throughout your life. Leave room for revision.
Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all. (Nathan W. Morris)
Also published on Medium.