Ross Fenning's Digital Garden

Four Burners Theory

The origins of this idea seem to be murky, but most people point to the James Clear article on the Downside of Work-Life Balance.

The idea is that you visualise health, work, family and friends as four seperate burners on a gas hob. The belief is that you need to turn one off to be successful or perhaps even turn off two in order to be really successful.

This is presented as a hard constraint — there’s no easy workaround (e.g. a standing desk alone isn’t enough to maintain health while working). It’s part of a mentality that life is all about Trade-offs.


The options of how to deal with boil down to:

  1. Keep all four going and don’t excel in any of them
  2. Outsource or delegate (or automate?)
  3. Use constraints, prioritise and otherwise make better use of your time (automation can help here too)
  4. Embrace the idea of Seasons of Life

1. Maintain all four

Both James Clear and The Natural Edge suggest you can burn all four at a mediocre heat, but I wonder if this is one of these areas where if you don’t choose the constraint, the constraint will choose you.

That is, if work draws all your focus, things like family and health start to get less attention, whether you intended this to happen or not.

If this is the case, then we absolutely should be intentional in which we choose to focus as letting one or two burners be compromised unintentionally is likely to incredibly negative.

Does this mean this option isn’t really an option? Or at least not a healthy one.

2. Outsource

James points out we outsource lots of things already:

Essentially the idea is that outsourcing keeps the burner running, but with you removed from the equation. This might not be fulfilling as just because your children are looked after, doesn’t mean that you are spending time with them. Also, if you manage to delegate all your work, you might not want to have days with nothing motivating to work on.

3. Prioritise and Constrain

Multiple articles talk about prioritising. An oft-cited approach is Greg McKeown’s Essentialism where you should cut out literally everything that isn’t absolutely essential to you.

This is obviously something we should keep an eye on all the time, but what stands out from James Clear’s article is explicitly leveraging constraints to force you to be more efficient.

4. Seasons of Life

The concept here is to break your life into seasons. Rather than striving for a perfect balance of everything forever, you have periods where your focus is more on some things than others.

In Nathan Barry’s article on seasons, they seem to be anything from a few weeks to a few years where you have a particular focus, but then that season comes to an end.

This appears to fit nicely with the idea of “less is more” as well as avoiding trade-off anxiety where it’s hard to pick what to commit to, so you don’t commit to anything. If we know that “I’m doing this for the next 3 months” then we know things being traded off simply have to wait — you’re not dropping them altogether.