Four Burners and Balance: The Follow-Up

Don't fall!

Thanks again for all your input on the four burners theory. That was fun.

I should say first that all is well in my life—I’m not concerned about falling off the edge or anything. I sometimes say that I’m going to start a “maximalist” movement because I don’t believe in limits or shutting ourselves off from the world.

So it’s all good. But nevertheless, I wonder about things sometimes, and the Sedaris quote was an interesting way to look at the issues of balance and focus. As a couple of people wisely said, the point is that we all have the same 24 hours every day.

No one likes the idea of turning off burners. But the question is: how can we best use the time we’ve been given?

A couple quick points before I share some of the comments from last week:

Someone said that Sedaris could think this way because “he must have a wife taking care of the home.” No offense, but I thought that was odd—first, because he is gay and therefore has no wife, and second, because it’s an odd idea that successful people “must” have someone else who is responsible for their success behind the scenes.

The second thing is that a number of people made comments about work being expendable and “what really matters” are the other three burners. Ah, but see, this is the reason for the post in the first place. It’s fine if you don’t care about your work and see it as a means to an end, but what about those of us who actually value the work we produce?

As I say from time to time, it’s good to ask yourself the question, “If time and money were no object, what would I do?” So for some people, perhaps they really would leave their jobs and spend all day surfing or hanging out. But for others of us, we’d want to build something; we’d be driven by the desire to find meaningful projects to fill our time. Surfing all day does not leave a legacy.

I’m not saying that work is more important than family or friends; I’m just saying I don’t see why it should be relegated to… wait for it… back burner status. And that is the crux of the issue. As a few smart people noticed, many of the comments address a side issue. The main issue is balance, focus, how to do it all with limited time and energy, etc.

Anyway, that’s it for me. Take a look at what some smart people said below, or read 200+ comments here. You guys are geniuses, really. I’m in your debt as always.


Sandy said:

For me, it is not so much about turning off the burners, as much as it is turning them down from time to time. When I am working on trying to finish a project or even start a new one, that burner gets turned way up, and the other burners, family, friends, health, etc get turned down for a bit.

When I have a day scheduled to spend with my nephews or nieces, I turn that flame on high and give them my undivided attention, living in that moment. All the others burners are turned way down or off.
I guess it’s not so much, turning on and off the burners, as much as turning them up and down and using the energy more efficiently.

Josh said:

I like to think that it’s possible to have it all. I make my living, along with my wife, as a photographer. We have 3 small children. We have very close relationships with our family and friends. We travel 3-4 times a year. And, while we aren’t rich in the monetary sense, we make enough money by taking pictures of wonderful people in love to pay the bills and feed our children. Honestly, if that’s not success, I don’t know what is.

Christopher said:

This very idea has been on my mind a great deal of late and I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t that we totally sacrifice one of the “burners” over any others in a permanent sense. Rather, we temporarily sacrifice 3 of the 4 at almost any one time. In general, we can only focus on one of these at a time – in a given moment. Of course, there is some overlap – we can build relationship with both family and friends at the same time at certain events, or sometimes a portion of our work could actually be so enjoyable that it creeps into “play.”

Gayle said:

If success is defined as some kind of extraordinary achievement–above and beyond the standard job, family and going through the motions of comfortable, middle class life–my experience is that “something has to give.”

I experienced it as the child of someone successful in sport and community development and, later, working for an organisation doing great things to make the world a better place. In most cases, family has to give. When your parents are changing the world, you just don’t see them as much because the rest of the world wants a piece of them, often.

Nelson Mandela is an extreme example. His children had less time with him than those related to his cause.

Daisy said:

The first visual that came to mind was my stove. If I’m cooking on all four burners at once, it works, but it’s mighty crowded, and there’s a danger of the cook getting burned. Creating a balanced meal on a four-burner stove is safer and more productive if the cook makes one item ahead so that he or she is only concentrating on three burners at a time.

I’m a full time professional (teacher), a disabled adult (hearing impaired), raising a disabled teen son (blind, on the autism spectrum), along with a neurotypical college graduate daughter and an equally busy husband. Balance is elusive, but it is attainable. Sometimes one burner has to be set to low or turned off temporarily.

Craig said:

The problem with the 4-burner analogy is that it focuses too much on the individual. Sure, 4 burners is more than enough to handle when going it alone, but hopefully we all live and work as part of a larger team.

Barbara said:

Here’s a question. What if you have two kinds of work? For a paycheck, I do one very businessy thing that I do like. For love, I do a completely different kind of work that could not support me at all unless I went back to school for a long time to get the credentials to teach it, which I don’t want to do. I think a lot of people are in this same situation. Do we have two pots on one burner?

Becky said:

It’s not about the burners. They’re the straw man. It’s all about choices and consequences and trade-offs. What matters to you? What are your goals? Where do you want to be? You want to travel, you have a goal. The trade-off is you aren’t in the USA to see everything your friends see, or do all the things you could do if you were here. You know you are trading off something to get what you want. As long as you’re happy, who cares if others think you travel too much. Ultimately knowing what makes US happy, whether it’s burning four burners or eight, is what is important.

Mandi said:

As with anything, I think the key to this theory is relative to the individual. First it depends on your definition of “success”. For some people success is working hard for 12 hours a day. For others it is small genuine accomplishments. And some people consider genuine happiness to equal an all around successful life. Sometimes my “successful” day is one where I have gotten out of bed.

Michael said:

What works in my life is keeping a clear mental image of what I want to have, be, and do. Then I bring my complete attention to whatever I’m working on at the time with the determination to create what I want. Living the creative life means taking life’s raw materials and using them in ways that meet the have-be-do equation. So, even if my house burns down, I can draw with the charcoal.

Kieran said:

Only four burners? I run ultramarathons, play ten instruments, speak a half-dozen languages, am in a relationship, have good friends, have a close relationship with my family (in the US and in Ireland), and am a lawyer at a pretty intense law firm.

To me, if you love what you do, when you do it, that’s the greatest accomplishment. Will I win these ultras? Hell no. Am I a spectacular musician? Not really. But I’m a decent runner and I can make music that sounds pretty good. My main goal is to enjoy the moment and the experience when I’m doing it — where I end up in relation to others is not my concern.

Tara said:

Where most people fail at this is not recognizing all the low quality things they put energy & time into. They spend hours watching TV in the name of relaxation. They force family time that results in little engagement and no bonding. They grind away at tasks that have very little influence on their world.

Steven said:

I think the four burner theory is true, but it doesn’t consider momentum: if you get a burner hot enough, you can turn it off and still cook for awhile. If you build strong relationships with friends and family, you can neglect them a bit without losing the core. If you build healthy habits, such as running a marathon, you can fall into running as a past time and still be healthier than most. If you build a reputation in your work, you earn the ability to coast a bit.

Sara said:

I’m a juggler. It doesn’t mean that I juggle very well, but I do know that the moments I enjoy the most are when I’m dealing with the stuff that most matters. I would say that I have three burners: Me, Work, Friends and Family. My friends are also my family so it makes sense to loop them together.

Christine said:

Are we talking success or happy? The two are not necessarily the same thing. To me, if you want the experience of being alive to your success, you need to attend to the things that make you happy, and these things need to harmonize with one another. And, forget balance, that’s just a corporate term that’s aimed at keeping people in jobs.

Rob said:

Nobody ever did anything extraordinary unless they were marvelously obsessed with their passion. If you want balance in your life go ahead and become marvelously obsessed with living a balanced life. If you want to become the greatest writer, blogger, artist, businessman etc. etc… it takes an unwavering focus on that one thing.

John said:

Interesting topic. What is absent in the excerpt from the theory is how success is defined and how long of a timeframe is being used to evaluate success. For me, the theory is also tempered by age – being able to declare I am successful in all areas at the age of 47 is very much different that what I perceived as being successful at the age of 22.


Thanks again for all the input.

Next week, fingers crossed, I’ll be heading out for Algeria and FINALLY Belarus (attempt number three). Then I take a quick side trip to Thailand, then I’m home in the great PDX for three weeks before touring America. Until next time, thanks for reading.


Image: CuriousIllusion

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  • rob white says:

    Quite a depth of knowledge and wisdom. It is fascinating to read everyone’s unique perspective on the same question… glad I could be a contribution to the discussion.

  • Nate says:

    Some really, really good comments! Thanks for sharing the highlights. Maybe what some people had an issue with (I’ll include myself in this) is that the four burner theory is a compartmentalized look at our lives instead of a holistic view. I think the key, which many get, is to understand that our life is really one large, burner…not four burners. We may have these walls we create, but our work, family, friends, social and spiritual life are all closely tied together more than we may realize. The question is: can we bring mindful and holistic awareness into everything we do?

  • Jean Sarauerj says:

    I spend a lot of time around older folks, and you know how they say that no one ever looks back at their life and says they wished they’d spent more time at the office?

    Well, they do.

    Okay, not maybe ‘the office’ per se but, they do express regret for not using their talents . . . not writing that book, not taking that job transfer, not starting a business.

    In the end, we regret not pursuing our passions, whatever they may be.

    My work is my lover right now, and I can’t get enough. Fortunately, my husband’s okay with that 🙂

  • Marie says:

    It all depends on how do you define “success”

    I agree with Josh– they are plenty of people that are having their cake and eating it too! including myself

  • ABCcreativity says:

    i love my work. love love love love love love LOVE. but i found last week is that i kind of hit a wall and needed to take a break. and i am learning how taking the time to nurture myself and my creative energy means i can do better work when i do go back to it.

    in this metaphor maybe it’s like unhooking the elements once in a while to clean them really thoroughly.

  • Mike Ziarko Musing says:

    I really enjoyed the post and the four burners theory is a great analogy. It’s insightful posts that really engage people and make them think about how they can learn and improve is IMO the best thing about the blogging world.

  • Michael from MN says:

    I also struggled with the four burners concept. I travel for business about 250K miles per year, run 4-5 marathons per year, have a family and a dog, and I like to think if you build a fence around those things that matter, and really focus on the what’s inside the fence when you’re spending time, that there ARE enough hours in the day. The things that don’t really matter kind of get shuffled out of the mix. I don’t have time to watch television (except the Tour de France in July)…my reading can pile up for an afternoon on the side porch, and I really should have mowed the yard yesterday..but didn’t get to it. Be in the moment and dial the multi-tasking down a notch or three. Quality not quantity.

  • Devin says:

    Personally, my life is completely out of balance and I am pretty comfortable with that, if not happy — a nebulous word I try to avoid, but it fits here. I work too much but love what I do. I love my small circle of close friends. Love most of my family and navigate well the ones I don’t. I exercise, but could do so a little more and eat well regularly and still enjoy an occasional burger — especially in airports.

    For me, none of this is a zero-sum game and success is just as nebulous as “happy.” Some days I do nothing and don’t return a friends call. Some days I work when my daughter wants to wrestle or play nintendo with. Others times, I wrestle and play video games when I should probably be working. I have become comfortable with all of it. Maybe this is success. But the no burner is ever turned all the way off.

  • Kevin says:

    Marvelous post, and your readers are an insightful bunch, judging from the quoted comments.

    I’m sure someone must have mentioned it along the way, but just in case, David Sedaris’s book Me Talk Pretty One Day is utterly hysterical… highly recommended.

  • Jeanette says:

    Once again, humbly disagreeing with your comment:
    “… It’s fine if you don’t care about your work and see it as a means to an end, but what about those of us who actually value the work we produce? ”

    You CAN value your work, what you produce AND yet not make it the priority “burner.”

    That’s what many “healthy” people do when they realize that making work the single most important thing in their life is really a betrayal of their humanity. You can care about what you do, but your work is rarely who you are. Most of us, no matter how vital what we do, are NOT saving lives on a global level and literally changing the world each day we work. We don’t have to to make what we do meaningful and worthwhile.

    You have to define who you are first. And that determines the priority of the burners.

    people talk about people being first, but then they spend their time and energy on everything BUT those people and justify and rationalize it in so many ways. Sad.

  • Karl-Erik Bennion says:

    I think a key thing to thing about here is integration. We all tend to look at things as a balance, when integration might be the better word. For example, I love my work and try to involve my children in it, when I run errands, and give them assignments to help me. So, instead of turning one burner down or off, I’ve combined the two. I can instill the value of work in my kids, spend time with them and strengthen the relationships I have with them, and still produce good work.

  • Chase Brumfield says:

    There’s a difference between “your work” and “your job.” One, you create how you want. The other tries to create you how it wants.

    Invest yourself in “your work” and live inclusively… bringing in your family, friends, and other passions. Doing away with categories allows us to realize we are the only ones that make categories, and that it’s these categorical constructs which leave us anxious and curious about how we spend your time. Do what you love with those you love… end of story.

    Give. Get. Give.

  • Joel says:

    Really cool to see the different perspectives from so many people. Thought provoking as usual Chris.

  • Evan says:

    The question is indeed about how best to use our time. For me it is having a worthwhile life and not cutting off one part (one burner) of my life.

  • Aurooba says:

    By far one of my favourite articles!

  • Starr Cline says:

    I think when you’re doing the right thing for a “living”, it’s not a job. The way I make balance is by living with a mate who has similar drives and goals. We both produce creative work as some or all of our “living” and so we (usually) easily support each other through times of high demand or low demand. If time or money were no object, I don’t think either of us would change what we’re doing.
    What really matters? At the end of the day, I believe that’s the memories we share with others, authentic human relationships. Of course, when I sell a painting, I make a real memory with someone. I send a piece of me to go live with someone else to hopefully give them joy. When I teach a class, I bond on some level with the students.
    I don’t have kids and I don’t socialize much, but I don’t miss it because I get the “real stuff” as a part of my regular life. My occupations and home life just give me all I need. The trick is to know oneself and thereby put oneself in a position of balance.

  • Georgeanne says:

    Isn’t part of non-conformity creating your own vision on how to create balance? The four burners theory applies when trying to take on life in a conventional way. When paving your own way balance shouldn’t have to mean turning one, two or three burners off. Rather, prioritize on a day to day basis.

  • Shaun R Smith says:

    Great article. Definitely got me thinking and discussing with friends. I agree with what some of the other writers said about lowering certain burners to a simmer at time. When you start a business or have a child, the other burners inevitably get lowered.

    However, I don’t see evidence around me that abandoning burners is required or even effective. I know people who have abandoned friends and family and health for business or careers and are failures at that also. And some of the most successful business people I know have great health and fulfilling personal lives also.

    Thanks for triggering the discussion.

  • Anastasiya says:

    I had the best time going through all comments on the 4 burners post last week because I am so interested in balance. In fact I believe in balance as a main driving force of most successful people (Notice, that I am saying “most,” not “all” because there are always those geniuses who do not care about worldly things and they live in a different world and for different reasons. Thankfully, most people are not that way otherwise the world would have been a very selfish and lonely place.)
    Chris, I want to thank you for writing both of these articles. Our life is all about making certain choices in life and these choices determine our success, our happiness and and our general satisfaction with life.
    To me balance means an equation with a few variables. Those variables can change from day to day, but they still have to be present all the time.

  • Ben H. says:

    I really like how you facilitate such a great, open discussion. You are filled with ideas and advice, but you don’t condescend.

  • Denise Michaels says:

    I’m 52 and have finally decided I’ve got to get out of a business that at one time was a passion – but I’m getting to a point where I’m so over it. But what I want to do – monetize my writing – takes awhile to get to the point where cash flow is coming in. But I’ve taken ideas and monetized them in the past – so I have confidence I can do it with my writing and create the life I want – an excellent adventure.

  • Nathan Hangen says:

    I’d say that’s true Georgeanne, except that as with anything, there’s no reason to break a rule unless it gets in the way. You have to pick your non-conformity based on what works, not on how many rules you can break.

  • Ja Wood says:

    The earliest meaning of work was to describe any kind of action involving effort or exertion, “it was hard work rowing, for the wind was against him”. This negative connotation has seemed to stick to work throughout the centuries. By the late 18th century work was used as a verb to mean negatively influencing or persuading someone’s will. By the early 19th century work described a criminal act or activity, and by the mid 20th century works described a drug addict’s equipment for taking drugs. In Old English work also had the meaning of fornication- a meaning that dissipated before the Middle English period.

    Work is a word that has a bad press. If you are doing something you have a passion for this is not thought of as work, bu it is. IF you are doing something because someone you love can not and it is need to sustain there life this is work but does not feel so. When I was their for my sons when they were growing up I thought of this as my work and I loved it and still do.

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