Freedom in 50s, Healthy Lifestyle

Is it Possible to have a Balanced Life? A Look at the Four Burners Theory

September 19, 2018
Four Burner theory

The other day I ran across an article on the Four Burners Theory. The origin of the concept is muddied, but here’s the premise. Imagine your life as a stove with four burners on it. Each burner symbolizes one major quadrant of your life – family, friends, health, and work. The theory is 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.” These days, as I put in 14-hour days working on the Early Exit Academy, WORK (and income) is my priority. And yes, I’ve shut down at least one burner! How about you?

Myth of the Work-Life Balance

Even though I write about the five journeys (financial independence, healthy lifestyle, inner peace, happiness, community), that doesn’t mean I’m acing all five aspects. In fact, I don’t know that a true work-life balance can be achieved – at least not by me. So the four burner theory really made me pause and think.

Sadly, I’m back to my old patterns. Work takes precedence, and at this moment, I’ve no choice.  I wrote about the Time-Excellence-Money conundrum that many of us face – the trade-off between time and money to produce excellence. Even though I’m committed to finding more time for health, family, and friends, most days I’m losing the battle. Here are three reasons why the four burner theory supersedes the mythical goal of work-life balance.

  1. Our personalities and values drive which burners stay lit and which are extinguished.
  2. The type of work we do and the environment in which we work has a big influence on our ability to keep all four burners lit.
  3. We rotate among lit burners depending on where we are in the life cycle.

The Role of Personality and Values

The last few weeks I have been learning some new software (Articulate 360) that is a game-changer for the Early Exit Academy courses. The learning curve was steeper than I anticipated, but I’ve got a good handle on it now. And yesterday, I finally completed a draft webinar/video to promote the courses, despite technology snafus. Major accomplishment! But in the process, I extinguished the health burner and turned down the friend burner. That’s the pattern I’ve lived with forever. Why?

Uekert family farm, established 1856

Our personalities emerge at a very young age. We are part genetics, culture, and  circumstances. The defining element of my life is growing up on the family farm. I worked alongside my parents and siblings every day. Even as young children, we were assets – directly contributing to the milk check that fed us each week. Work was paramount, and we never got away with a half-assed job. And working hard and the need to produce quality has become part of my personality.  I obsess over doing my best job and I fear failure. So the WORK burner has always glowed hot.

Determining which burners to light are a reflection of our values. Sure, family, friends, and health are important to me. And while work takes a central role, it’s not just work for the sake of work. Rather, I’ve always been attracted to value-driven work that has a big impact on either individuals or policies. I was passionate about my career – if anything, I cared TOO much. And now I’ve turned my passion to another topic: helping people leave the workplace early to find a more fulfilling life. The work I do has too much meaning for me to let the burner extinguish.

The Nature of Work

If you have a family business, the work-family burners are always lit. And if you work as a fitness trainer, you’ll be burning hot on the health and work fronts. But most people have four separate spheres and it can be tough to take care of all of them at the same time.

While many people dream about retiring early, others are fully aware that work is a social outlet. I’ve become very much aware of that fact, as I sit home each day working on my laptop. Most days, I spend more time talking to my cats than a human being! It can get a little lonely. And that’s one of the reasons why people delay their retirement. If I didn’t have my master naturalist gang to hang out with, I’d be in a serious funk.

Life-Cycle Realities

Those four burners switch on and off depending on where you are in the life cycle. When my daughter was younger, my priority was running her to and from events. Being a single mom, I didn’t have a backup so family had to move up to the front of the line. Now that I’m alone, my friends have become even more important. And there have been times in my life when the health burner has glowed the brightest (I’d love to return to that body!). The point is, it’s totally normal that you will have different priorities at different times in your life.

What’s a Girl to Do?

The four burner theory matches my experience. I know things have got to change – I need to light up the health burner. And yet, it’s not going to happen for awhile. Building the Early Exit Academy not only consumes my time, it keeps me awake at night as new ideas strike (or I panic about the course flopping). I’ve got several months of long days ahead of me.

Life can’t be all work and I need a break every now and then. So tomorrow, I’m headed to Disney World! It will be a fun-filled trip with some very good friends, and I can’t wait. For four days, I will extinguish the work burner and light up the friend burner. And maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be. After all, you might burn down the house if all four burners are turned on high!

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  • Liz @ I Heart Vegetables September 21, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    I think that’s an interesting theory and it makes sense to me! It’s also a good reminder that if all four burners on high, you can burn out! I needed this today! 🙂