The Four-Burners Theory and Living a Mediocre Life

I first heard of the Four-Burners Theory while reading Emma Isaacs’s memoir Winging it. The book essentially tracks Isaac’s journey buying her first business at eighteen, a recruitment agency, to eventually buying the juggernaut company, Business Chicks, and becoming an entrepreneur.

I read that book two years ago, but have found myself referring to this theory constantly over the past few months.

Here’s the basics …

Imagine you have a four-burner stove-top. One of the burners is for family, one for friends, another for work, and the last one is health.

Now, your four burners may have different labels, but the theory remains the same: if you turn off one of the burners, you will become more successful in the remaining three areas, but if you cut off two, you’ll be really successful in the remaining two.

Three years ago, I was chatting with a senior lecturer at a conference about academic workloads and the challenge of living a balanced life.

“The thing is,” they said, “a person with a perfectly balanced life may be really happy, but from the outside their life will look mediocre.”

Issacs echoed this message in her book by stating that she’s minimised the relationships in her life in order to maximise her career and family life (she has six kids!). Similarly, when work gets busy, exercise and healthy eating go out the window so that she can devote more time to work.

The message? If you want to be great at something, say work, you may have to reduce or let go of another aspect of life say, family, friendship, or health.

Now for me, I imagine that each aspect of my life has a four-burner stove-top.

My work life is broken up into teaching, writing, researching, and my author platform. My health is broken up into eating, relaxation, exercise, and meditation.

My relationships are broken up into partnership, family, friends, and community/social clubs.

I can usually handle having four pots on my stove, but only three are ever on high-heat.

Last week, my work days looked like this: three days marking assignments, one day working on the novel, one day split between academic writing and research.

Five days, three pots, and not a single blog written or Instagram comment responded to.

Another week might be different, let’s say I’ve run out of blog posts/videos, so I have to spend one or two days writing, filming, and editing this content, that then leaves three days to tend to the other three pots on my stove. Now, hopefully, if there are no pressing deadlines, I can cut off one of these pots so I can tend to the remaining two.

If you’re really clever, sometimes you can combine two pots together.

For example, a blog post can be slightly altered and sold to a magazine or journal (I have done this often), or an idea discovered while doing academic research can become the basis of a blog, or a question asked in class can spark an idea for a novel or short story.

The underlining message of the four-burners theory is simple: you can’t do everything at once, and you can’t do everything well.

If we were to accept the four-stove theory as a true and useful tool, how can we make it work for us in a practical sense?

For me, working with time constraints and batching tasks is often helpful.

Time constraints

If your working hours are 9am – 5pm, Monday to Friday, you now have a contain amount of time in which to complete your work tasks. So, how can you use this time to be as effective as possible?

If you have two hours to work on a novel, what can you do to be productive during that time?

If you only have four hours a week to work out, what can you do that will get you into the best shape possible?

By framing the question in this way, you are breaking out of a negative thought loops (“I don’t have enough time!”) and instead critically considering what you can do to make the most out of the time that is available.

Batching Tasks

I’ve written about batching tasks previously, so if you want the full rundown, check out the post here.

The essential theory behind batching is that you’ll get more done when you dedicate a whole day to one activity or similar types of activities.

For example, rather than writing for one hour then posting on social media, then editing a YouTube video, then preparing for a class, and then reading an article, you would be much better to spend the whole day writing (maybe working on a novel in the morning, and then a blog post in the afternoon).

Obviously, this may not always be possible as we all have different deadlines and levels of responsibility and some activities cannot be batched.

For example, you can’t cram a whole week’s worth of exercise into a single day.

And yet, when it comes to work related activities, batching tasks is a great way to make traction on a particular project within a short amount of time.

The four-stove theory reminds us that we only have so much energy and we have to be discerning in how we use it. 

While I can appreciate the lecturer’s sentiment that a balanced life is a mediocre life, I also believe that life is a little more complicated than that.

All of the following statements work on a macro and micro scale …

There are times when work has to be the priority. You’ve started a business, a degree, or you have a massive deadline at the end of the month.

There are times when family has to be the priority. You’ve meet someone, or gotten married, had a baby, or a family member has passed away.

There are times when health has to be the priority. An unwelcomed diagnoses or health scare, you’re feeling sluggish, have low energy, or are generally unhappy.

There are times when friendships have to be the priority. Out of town visitors, birthdays, celebrating milestones, or perhaps a friend is going through a hard time and needs extra support.

Hell, sometimes you just want to have a cup of tea and a chat because life!

Whether you believe in the four stove theory or not, I think we can all agree that you can’t do all the things all the time.

If you want to meet your goals AND have a happy life, then you need to be constantly assessing your to-dos against the other components of life that make you feel fulfilled and sane (see: relationships and health).

What do you think of the four stove theory? Do you agree that you have to cut off one or more burners in order to be successful in other areas, or do you believe a balanced life is a better life? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment below (sorry about the rhyme).


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