Why work-life balance is overrated for happiness and success: The four burners theory

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. Luckily, there’s an alternative approach to work-life balance within the four burners theory, that could also help you to achieve better productivity, health, happiness and satisfaction.

According to a 2017 Gallup poll on the state of the American Workplace, approximately 53 percent of employees stated that a job role that allows them to have better work-life balance and personal well-being is “very important” to them. [1]

We’re constantly on the search for the perfect work-life balance that’ll free up adequate time to spend on our work, family, friends and health. The advancement of technology i.e. email, smartphones, social media, fitness aps etc., has made it more possible to get more done in less time. But, there’s still one lingering problem.

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. Luckily, there’s an alternative approach to work-life balance within the four burners theory, that could also help you to achieve better productivity, health, happiness and satisfaction. Here’s how it works.

The Work-Life Balance Myth Explained By the Four Burners Theory

Take a few seconds to imagine a cooking stove with four flames or burners on it. Each burner represents a major area of your life. For example:

  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.

Now imagine that there’s only a limited amount of ‘gas’ to use for each of the burners, such that not all burners could be equal. You would need to sacrifice one of the burners to make room for another burner to burn stronger.

This is the premise of the four burners theory which suggests 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.” [2]

In other words, if say you wanted to become very successful at your work or career, you’d have to sacrifice a combination of either your time with friends, family or health.

There is some truth to the four burners theory. If you look back into your past to recall a personal major achievement in your academics, sports, career and so on, you probably sacrificed one or more of the major areas of your life.

At least speaking for myself, every major achievement in my life has required a sacrifice in the friends burner. Apologies to any of my friends who read this.

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.

However, the implications of the four burners theory may seem extreme, since it suggests that you’d have to cut off key areas of your life. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case in reality.

Here’s a better way to think about the four burners theory.

Imagine you’re a juggler who could only hold two balls in your hands at any given point in time. Each ball represents a key area of your life.

No matter how many balls you’d like to juggle, you can’t hold any new balls without tossing one of the other balls up in the air temporarily.

A bunch of different scenarios could play out. For example, if you always hold unto one ball, you’d be limited to how many balls you can juggle, so you could release more.

Likewise, some people would be able to juggle more balls than you or hold more balls at a time. You could also juggle with someone else or pay someone else to juggle for you.

The key point here is that we don’t have to completely cut off key areas of our lives, but, we should acknowledge that success and work-life balance can’t work together because of the limited time and energy available on a daily basis.

Successful people and work-life balance

I’ve researched and written quite a bit on the daily routines, mental models and habits of highly successful entrepreneurs, writers, athletes and so on.

Although they all have different routines and habits, there’s one common trend I’ve noticed during my research. It’s that at some point in their life journey, they’ve sacrificed one or more key areas of their life to achieve success.

Seriously, I’ve yet to come across a story of a high achiever with work-life balance.

For example, billionaire entrepreneur and CEO of Space X and Tesla, Elon Musk, has stated during interviews that he works at least 100 hours every week. [3]

In order for Musk to achieve his current level of success, Musk sacrifices his family burner i.e. his time spent with his five sons.

At south by southwest in 2013, Musk mentions that this quality time with his sons on the weekend is also spent replying to work emails.

“Because they don’t need constant interaction, except when we’re talking directly….I find I can be with them and still be working at the same time.”

The interviewer interrupts Musk during the interview and asks him, “Are you saying you can do e-mail while you’re with your children?”

“Yea, absolutely…I mean, not all the time, but a lot of the time… in the absence of that I would not be able to get my job done.” [

Considering the average employee works an average of 6.3 hours per day (8.8 hours excluding weekends), Musks’ average of 12 hours per day is almost twice the average. [4]

Another example in the writing and creative field is the famous writer, Haruki Murakami.

In the book, Daily Rituals (audiobook), Murakami, regarded as one of the world’s greatest living novelists, reveals his daily routine and habits for success.

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m.

I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

As you may have noted in the excerpt above, Murakami suggests that he maintained his work and health burners, but sacrificed on the family and friends burners to achieve his level of writing success.

Overall, there appears to be a strong correlation between the hours spent working on ones craft and the level of success achieved. As a result of this, high achievers tend to sacrifice one or more key areas of their life to free up more hours to work on their craft.

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

This satisfaction seems to be a greater reward and motivation to them than attaining work-life balance.

How to find work-life satisfaction within the four burners theory

“You cannot separate the personal and professional aspects of an individual’s life… You have one life that has personal and professional aspects, and these aspects have an incredible influence on each other. … People want to live deeply satisfying lives both personally and professionally.”
— Matthew Kelly

In the book, Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction (audiobook), Work-life Balance expert and Best selling author, Matthew Kelly, surveyed 10,000 people on their work-life balance.

Here’s the question 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. Interesting!

This survey suggests 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.

Here are 4 ways to find more time to achieve work-life satisfaction in your life.

1. Focus on managing your energy not your time.

In the book, ‘The Power Of Full Engagement’, peak performance experts, Dr Jim Leohr and Tony Schwartz suggest that the main reason why some people achieve 10 times more in any given day than most people do in weeks, is not because they manage time better — it’s because they manage their energy better.

This “energy” can be broken down into physical, emotional, mental and spiritual components. For example, developing the weekly habit of scheduling downtime away from work, could help you replenish energy for better productivity the following week. Another example is scheduling your most important activities when you have the most energy available to take action.

Think about what other daily habits you could develop to keep you stay healthy, focused and energized? Hint: meditation, exercise, diet, etc.

2. Delegate activities.

If you don’t have enough time for one of the burners, why not pay someone else to do it for you?

“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 incentive to be effective and efficient?”
― New York Best Selling Author of The 4-Hour Workweek (audiobook), Tim Ferriss.

For example, if you’d usually spend time in the supermarket selecting and buying food on a weekly basis, you could choose an alternative online food delivery option to your home instead. This will save you time that can now be spent on other ‘burners’ in your life.

Evidently, some things can’t be delegated i.e. exercising, but those that can will help you to free up a lot of time.

3. Set your priorities.

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.

4. Develop core habits that bring satisfaction.

Core habits are similar to keystone habits in the sense that they could help make it easier to achieve overall life satisfaction.

For example, my core habits include working out or playing the guitar at the end of a long, stressful, hard work day. 9 times out of 10, these habits help to raise the level of satisfaction I experience during a given day.

What are yours? Simply write down 5 core habits that’ll make you feel better, regardless of how tough your day has been.

No sacrifice, no success

“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 talent than you would think. Few are willing to make the necessary sacrifices.”
— Matthew Kelly

Although the idea of work-life balance presents a romantic, hopeful perspective that we can successfully balance the key areas of our lives — the four burners theory suggests the opposite.

The four burners theory is a realistic reminder that we can’t have it all because of the limited time and energy available to us on a daily basis.

More specifically, in order to achieve success in any area of our lives, sacrifices are a necessity and work-life balance becomes unrealistic.

All hope isn’t lost though. Instead of looking for work-life balance, why don’t we look to achieve work-life satisfaction?

What are the key areas of your life that will bring you the most satisfaction? And, what burners do you have to sacrifice to make more room for them?

Footnotes

  1. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace 2017
  2.  The Four Burners Theory was originally popularized from this New Yorker article written by David Sedaris
  3.  Musk discussion on work-life balance during South by South Conference in 2013 and this interview
  4.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement ideas and proven science for better health, productivity and creativity. To get practical ideas on how to stop procrastinating and build healthy habits, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.

A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “The Four Burners Theory: Why Work-Life Balance is Overrated for Happiness and Success”