What is the Four Burners Theory and Can Anyone Actually Make it Work?

by ParentCo. November 30, 2017

woman with different topis above her head

Trying to find the origin of the Four Burners Theory has proven impossible, but I first read about it in a David Sedaris piece. The idea is that we all have four burners, and they are: family, friends, health, and career. The belief is that we must choose to turn one burner off to keep the others successfully lit, and we must turn off two if we want to truly succeed in our chosen burner categories.

I read extensively about this theory, shaking my head as every article affirmed this approach to life. It was an about-face to the idea of a balanced life, that elusive unicorn we all hear about but struggle to find.

While I agree that we can't have it all if we want it all to be perfect, balance still seems like an admirable goal. However, if balance isn't possible, should we even attempt it? Is it a good idea to seek balance and expect less of ourselves in every area of life? Or should we throw in the towel and start cutting off some burners? Turns out, the answer is complicated.

Who you are

Personality plays a major role in whether the Four Burners Theory works for someone. One mom said she embraced this theory because she's more of a black and white person, and wants to excel at whatever she's invested in without distractions. Another mom disagreed. Having watched others in her life put so much into one burner only to regret it later, she saw the sense in balance for ultimate fulfillment.

Every person I spoke to agreed that there are seasons in life where turning off burners is the only option. The difference is some were comfortable with that and others said they hobbled through those seasons, struggling with every step.

Those seasons are exactly the reason I don't want to live by the Four Burners Theory on a regular basis.

When I had infants, I embraced shutting everything down except family. I turned off my career, health, and friends' burners, and I made it through nursing, sleep deprivation, and a relatively isolated life. My family burner was on high, and maybe that was the only way it could be.

The problem is that I emerged from that high-intensity time with my health wrecked, my writing stalled, and a prominent feeling of loneliness. There was a price to pay, and it was high.

With older children, the seasons don't last quite as long or feel so demanding. We've gone through weeks of illness where my friends' burner has been off due to contagion, but the end of the tunnel has always been in sight. I've been happier because of that, but not everyone is.

What do we want?

Another issue is the term success. Success is a fairly abstract term that means different things to different people. The idea of success that seems to be encompassed in the Four Burners Theory is one of mastery in our limited chosen areas of life.

We can't keep all the fires burning if we want this kind of success. Being a jack of all trades and a master of none is too hard for many to embrace, so they like the idea of focusing only on areas in which they hope to excel.

However, even high-ranking CEOs found fault with the Four Burners Theory. Tammy May, CEO and founder of MyBudget, said that despite her role as the leader of a company, she believes balance makes people better humans overall. When Atmail CEO Zach Johnson realized his health was suffering because of a long commute and personal issues, he didn't decide to keep the health burner turned off. He changed his life to make sure he could exercise and care for his body, choosing balance.

Balance, maybe because I have such a hard time maintaining it, has always been my idea of success. Many other people I talked to said the same thing. One friend said if she turned off her friends' burner, she'd simply put unnecessary stress on her family because they alone would have to fill all her emotional needs. Turning off the health burner doesn't set the best example for our kids, and we suffer. Turning off the career burner leaves many parents without the mental fulfillment that simply cannot come from changing diapers.

The people who resist the Four Burners Theory find satisfaction in doing an okay job at everything. Success in any given burner doesn't mean being at the top of the game for them. Simply participating in a way that makes them feel fulfilled is enough.

What the Scandinavians know

The Danish term hygge entered the mainstream vocabulary of many Americans this year, and trend forecasters say the Swedish term lagom is next. Hygge is a feeling of coziness Danes cultivate by practicing simplicity methods. Lagom is defined as not too much but not too little, and often nicknamed the Goldilocks approach. Scandinavians live by these words, and they are found to be some of the happiest people in the world.

If we adopt the Four Burners Theory, are we turning our backs on hygge and lagom, and by extension contentedness? Probably. Danes are known for shorter work weeks, indulging in the outdoors and sweet treats, and spending quality time with those in their inner circles. This balance offers the hygge they seek.

Lagom, though different, still offers balance in its definition. There can be no turning off of burners because that would mean too much in certain areas and not enough in others, which goes against the moderation of lagom.

While many say trying to find the elusive work-life balance is difficult, judging by those in other countries, the pursuit and attainment of some sort of balance is a major component of happiness.

How to decide

Those I approached with questions about the Four Burners Theory had no trouble identifying whether they thought it was a good idea or not. To my relief, I wasn't the only one who saw it as bad approach. Though there were some who saw the appeal, most people I spoke to said that turning off burners causes more stress than trying to attain balance.

Accepting that attaining balance is an everyday struggle can make it easier to continue to pursue life with all burners functioning. We have to commit to stay focused to ensure no one is scorched in the process, but a fully functioning stovetop may be the key to a happier life for many of us.



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