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An alternative solution to the work-life balance problem

How many times have you heard someone say they need to achieve more balance in their life?

It seems we’re constantly on the search for the perfect work-life balance that’ll free up adequate time to spend on our family, friends and health. But, we only have 24 hours in a day with a limited amount of time and energy to spend on these key areas of our lives. 

The Four Burners Theory suggests an alternative solution to the work-life balance problem. The idea is a simple one:

Imagine that your life is represented by a stove with four burners on it. Each burner symbolises one major quadrant of your life.

1. The first burner represents your family.

2. The second burner is your friends.

3. The third burner is your health.

4. The fourth burner is your work.

In the words of David Sedaris in his New Yorker article on the subject, The Four Burners Theory says 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.” 

In other words, life is filled with tradeoffs: If you want to excel in your work, then your friends and your health may have to suffer. If you want to hit a fitness PB, then you might be forced to dial back your career ambitions. 

You can also divide your time equally among all four burners, but you have to accept that you will never reach your full potential in any given area.


As Matthew Kelly puts it, “Success always has required and always will require sacrifice. If success were easy, it would be common. It is difficult and that is why it is rare. More people have more talent than you would think. Few are willing to make the necessary sacrifices.”

If you look back into your past to recall a personal major achievement you probably sacrificed other areas in your life for that success.

This was absolutely true of my journey to passing selection for Special Forces. In the two years build up prior to the course I pretty much dialled everything except work and health down to the bare minimum. Every decision I made was based on the answer to one question: Will doing this help or hinder my efforts to pass selection?

I even missed the ceremony of my best mates wedding to attend a preparation cadre run by the SBS… and I was supposed to be the best man! (I did make the evening for my speech). Nothing in my life was as important to me at that time and I gave everything to achieving that goal.

Three soldiers in heavy camouflage.
Photo by Carl Nenzen Loven on Unsplash

The necessity of sacrifice for success is one of the downsides of work-life balance, which underestimates the high volume of hours required on a daily basis to become a top performer in any field. If you want to be great at something, there is no two ways about it, you are going to have to sacrifice a lot.

Satisfaction vs Balance

What drives high achievers to make these sacrifices? It’s the satisfaction from pursuing a level of achievement that is beyond their current reality.

Personally, the satisfaction of passing selection was a greater motivation and reward than attaining work-life balance.

Matthew Kelly is the author of ‘Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction

In a survey of 10,000 people on their work-life balance Kelly asked the participants: If you had to choose between balance and satisfaction, which would you choose?

Out of the 10,000 participants, 10,000 chose satisfaction over balance! This would suggest that it’s not the ‘balance’ we’re seeking—it’s more time to do the things that bring us satisfaction and less time doing things that don’t.

Tactics for life

Life is filled with tradeoffs. If you want to excel in one area of your life then others are inevitably going to pay the price. There is no free lunch!

You can of course divide your time equally among all four burners, but you have to accept that you will never reach your full potential in any given area. Which leads to a choice between living an unbalanced but high performing life OR a life that is balanced, but never maximises your potential.

There is no right answer, and something you can only answer for yourself. The following are some tactics you can employ to help get the most out of life:

1. Eliminate, automate, delegate

Sign on a wooden wall saying 'Nope'
Photo by Daniel Herron on Unsplash

As Tim Ferriss puts it, “Never automate something that can be eliminated, and never delegate something that can be automated or streamlined. Otherwise, you waste someone else’s time instead of your own, which now wastes your hard-earned cash. How’s that for an incentive to be effective and efficient?”

We all do things that could quite easily be eliminated completely from our lives:

  • A social “obligation” we didn’t really want to go to
  • Responding to an email we didn’t need or ask for
  • A work project that doesn’t pay our rate or that we hate 

Every time you say “yes” to something, you say “no” to something else. The most powerful tool in your arsenal to create more time is the word “No!”

How to achieve this? Greg McKeown puts it pretty simply: “If it isn’t a ‘hell yes!’, it’s a ‘no'”. If you can’t eliminate it, like paying bills or food shopping then you can make it as streamlined as possible through automation.

For example there are free online budget trackers and planners which you can easily set up and track budgets, see where you’re spending your money, track your credit, get an overview of your finances and even pay your bills quickly in one place.

And setting up a regular online shop means no time sat in traffic or wandering the aisles and it only takes a few clicks for the odd item change.

Lastly you can delegate. Outsourcing small portions of your life allows you to save time and spend it elsewhere.

When assessing necessary tasks, also ask yourself whether that task can be delegated. Done wisely, it’s an efficient and realistic use of your resources.

For example:

  • Childcare
  • Housekeeping
  • Tech work
  • Gardening
  • Bookkeeping

We all outsource everyday! When we buy a cup of coffee from the café or a loaf of bread from the bakery, we are outsourcing! It’s all about deciding whether it’s best for you to spend money or time and energy on a task. Money you can make back, but time is the one thing you can never get back.

2. Prioritise

Sometimes it’s not the lack of time or energy preventing us from being productive, it’s the lack of priorities.

If we don’t know what is truly important to us versus what’s not, it’ll be much harder to say yes to doing what is important and no to things that appear to be urgent but aren’t important.

The only way to counteract this is to set your priorities straight. For example, if spending time with family after working hours is defined as your top priority, it’ll be easier to say no to your colleagues’ request for after work drinks. A clear set of priorities will help you to create healthy boundaries for work-life satisfaction.

Another example is scheduling your most important activities when you have the most energy available to take action.

3. The multiplier effect

Close up of a gas burning stove plate.
Which one to burn?
Photo by KWON JUNHO on Unsplash

James Clear suggests one compromise is to break life into seasons that focus on a particular area instead of searching for a perfect balance:

“The importance of your burners may change throughout life. When you are in your 20s or 30s and you don’t have children, it can be easier to get to the gym and chase career ambitions. The health and work burners are on full blast. A few years later, you might start a family and suddenly the health burner dips down to a slow simmer while your family burner gets more gas. Another decade passes and you might revive relationships with old friends or pursue that business idea you had been putting off.”

The length of a season could also be measured in months, weeks or even days depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

The advantage of this is that there is often a multiplier effect that occurs when you dedicate yourself fully to a given area. In many cases, you can achieve more by going all-in on a given task than by giving it a lukewarm effort. So maybe it is best to strive for seasons of imbalance and rotate through them as needed.

4. Boost your capacity

Time and energy are currency just like money. If you make smart investments you make a good return and have more to invest. The opposite is true if you make bad investments.

For example, sometimes it actually saves money to spend on outsourcing because your time and energy can be used to work and make more than you’re spending on the help you need.

But, there is one area that I strongly believe will give you the best return when you invest time and energy into it—your health!

Everything we do is affected by or enabled by our level of health:

  • How much energy we have.
  • How well we cope with stress.
  • How susceptible we are to illness and injury.
  • How productive we are.

Health can be either a force multiplier, helping you level up every area of your life. Or it can be the weight dragging you down. The better physical and mental health you have the better you are going to perform in all areas of life. 

I would argue that it is worth prioritising your health until you get to the point where your health is in good order, at which point you can stick that burner on maintenance.

By doing this you will boost your capacity in every quadrant by having more energy for work, friends and family.

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Show notes: (2:11) Intro to article ‘10 insights and trends for business leadership in 2021’ (2:43) There are no perfect leaders (4:27) A leader must demonstrate what it means to be a good follower (5:01) Manage expectations around risk and innovations (6:11) Understanding different motivations (7:42) Good leaders should be present (8:59) Change management (9:57) … Continued