The Problem With A Balanced Life - 4 Burners Theory Explained

The Problem With A Balanced Life 

Let's talk about a balanced life. In our modern society, we want to do it all.
We want to be great at the work we do, we want to be healthy, we want to have great friends, all while being the best spouse and the best parent we can be.

This is something many people want, but rarely anyone achieves it. But why is it so hard to achieve all those things? Well, it's because a balanced life is an illusion.
One way to look at life balance is through a concept known as The Four Burners Theory. Imagine there’s an old cooking stove in your kitchen.

This stove has four burners. Each burner symbolizes one major quadrant of your life.

  • The first burner represents your family.
  • The second burner is your friends.
  • The third burner is your health.
  • The fourth burner is your work.

However, there’s only a limited amount of power the stove has to use for each of the burners. This means if all four burners are at the same power, none of them are burning strongly. Instead, they're burning at about 25% capacity each.

And if you want to turn up one of the burners, the other 3 will lose some of their power. Essentially if you want one burner, to burn to its full potential, you would have to turn off the other 3.

Now the premise of The Four Burners Theory is this: “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.” I know the term "success" is relative, and that it means different things to different people.

But whenever you look closely at someone you consider successful, you'll find that they live a highly imbalanced life. There's usually one area that is dominating their life, while other areas are left hanging by the side.

For example, the CEO of Space X and Tesla, Elon Musk, has stated during interviews that he works at least 100 hours every week. Talk about imbalance.

He's fueling all his time and energy into his most important burner, which is work. That also means that he doesn't have much time and energy left, to spend on other burners like health, family, or friends.

The truth is that life is filled with tradeoffs. If you want to excel at your work and in your marriage, then your friends and your health may have to suffer.

If you want to be healthy and succeed as a parent, then you might be forced to dial back on your career.
However, I don't agree that we should turn off a quadrant completely. Instead, we should let it burn on a lower setting. Of course, you are free to divide your time equally among all the areas and live a "balanced life".

But you have to accept that you are unlikely to achieve major success in any given area. The Four Burners Theory reveals something everyone must deal with: Every choice has a cost. And I know that nobody likes hearing this, but sadly there are limits to our time and energy.

If you're spending 5 hours per week hanging out with your friends, that's 5 hours you could have spent exercising or 5 hours you could have been working on your business.

By doing one thing, you're taking away from another. That's simply how life is. If you want to excel in any given area, you must become imbalanced and sacrifice other regions. Essentially, you're forced to choose.

Do you want to live a life that is balanced, but never maximize your potential in a given quadrant? Or would you rather live a life that is imbalanced?

That means under-performing in some areas, but succeeding in a certain region. This is something everyone should think about. Now The Four Burners Theory might only list 4 regions, but you could easily add other areas as well, such as: studying, different hobbies, and even cleaning. Nevertheless, the principle stays the same.

If you're hanging out with your friends, you're not studying. And if you're working on your business, you're not cleaning or practicing the piano.

Now while it may be true that we’ll always have to make tradeoffs, nowhere does it say we have to stick with the same tradeoffs forever.

Burners usually change in importance as we grow older. When you’re a kid, life is all family and friends. Then as you enter school usually friends and studying take over.

When you're in your 20s or 30s and you don’t have children, the health and work burners are on full blast. A few years later, you might start a family and suddenly the work burner dips down, 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.

Essentially as your life progresses, your priorities change, and therefore, your burners will burn differently. For this reason, I believe there's no point in chasing a perfect life balance, as it's unlikely we'll ever achieve it.
Rather, we should aim for life satisfaction. If you know spending more time with your friends and family is going to bring you more joy, by all means, spend more time with them.

If work and career are more important to you, then spend more time and energy there. Each one of us has different priorities and we're all in different stages of life. It's ok to be imbalanced, as long as you're happy with the trade-offs you're making.

So do whatever is more important to you and live the life you want to live. The Four Burners Theory is a reminder that each choice has a cost. For one burner to burn stronger, the others have to lose some of their power.

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