What is the Four Burners Theory?
As far as I can tell, the Four Burners Theory originated in a 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. — The New Yorker¹
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.
Author and entrepreneur 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 on JamesClear.com²:
- Outsource burners
- Embrace your constraints/limitations
- Break your life into seasons of imbalance
Another interpretation on the Four Burners Theory comes from author and speaker John Richardson. He describes a fifth burner³:
In our analogy, the central burner is purpose. The stovetop griddle is a balanced life.
Translating the Four Burners Theory into your Life Roles
A slightly different approach is one that focuses on life roles.
Last year I took a course at work called The 5 Choices of Extraordinary Productivity by FranklinCovey. There’s an exercise that asks you to identify 5 to 7 roles. These roles represent key responsibilities and relationships, express your deepest values and highest aspirations, and create a balanced perspective of your life.
You are prompted with 60 sample life roles to get you started, including things like: Athlete, Brother/Sister, Caregiver, Colleague, Daughter/Son, Friend, Gardener, Inventor, Leader, Manager, Mentor, Musician, Parent, Partner/Spouse, Teacher, Teammate, Writer, etc.
Less is more when it comes to your life roles. 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. Essentialism is about making tradeoffs. And, tradeoffs require saying no. Just remember, work is only one part of your life:
Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls…work, family, health, friends, and integrity…Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls…are made of glass. — James Patterson
How would you define your life roles? Remember, there are only 24 hours in a day.
And, 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.