The Four Burner Theory: An Alternative to Work Life Balance

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Work-life balance. The elusive unicorn we’re all chasing that – as far as I know – no one has ever actually caught. 

I mean, how can we? The dictionary defines balance as “the state of having your weight spread equally so that you do not fall” or “a state in which different things occur in equal or proper amounts or have an equal or proper amount of importance.” I don’t know about you but in all of my professional career – and especially since becoming a mother two years ago – work and life have never occurred in equal amounts and I almost always feel like I’m about ready to fall over the edge. 

But, during a recent work conference that featured a panel on working mothers (which I, of course, watched virtually while my daughter played at my feet), a panelist mentioned a new-to-me concept called The Four Burner Theory that has changed how I approach the idea of work-life balance. 

While it’s unclear where The Four Burner Theory originated, a New Yorker article described it something like this: Think of your life as a stove with four burners – one for family, one for friends, one for your work, and one for your health. In order to be successful, you have to turn off one; in order to be world-class, you have to turn off two.

The panelist I was listening to, expanded the idea even further, noting that if all four burners are on high, everything you’re cooking – including you – gets burned. But if none of the burners are turned up high enough, nothing actually gets done.

While the thought of turning off burners sounds appealing and I’m sure works for the Beyonces and Oprahs of the world (who might be able to fully outsource one thing they’re cooking), this isn’t my reality. I want a life that includes all four burners – family time, a social life, time to work on my physical and mental health, and a career I love. So what has been helpful for me is using this analogy to recognize that – while I can never turn a burner fully off and I also can’t burn myself by keeping them all on high – I can turn certain ones down as I work through different recipes of life. 

For example, there are times when my work burner is on high. I have to travel, spend long hours in front of my computer, and race to finish projects before big deadlines. When this happens, I can’t just stop being a mom or a wife … so my social and health burners go on low. My workouts become shorter and more sporadic. I decline dinners with friends and replace them with quick text conversations and check-ins. 

Similarly, there are times when family is on high. Recently, my daughter had hand, foot, and mouth disease. My husband and I had to coordinate the logistics of keeping her home from daycare for a week. Luckily, my colleagues understood that my work burner needed to be on low for a couple of hours or even a full day.

In the past, these scenarios would make me feel like a failure because I wasn’t “balanced.” To do well at work, I had to let my family and friends down. Or to be a good mom, I had to be a “bad” employee. Basically, no one – especially me – won.

But, with the Four Burner Theory framework in my mind, I now realize that when I focus my attention on what’s cooking on one burner, it’s okay to let the others simmer. That’s not a failure … that’s just being a good cook. 

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