It was 2016. I was turning 40 and feeling listless and adrift. Everything was going well, but I didn’t feel excited about where I was headed. I triumphantly decided that I was going to set some goals. I was going to move away from the mediocre and into something that looked unequivocally like success. I would set motivating goals in each domain of my life.
I was listening to Zach Even-Esh who, on his podcast and Instagram missives, preached to break out of mediocrity and to fear being stagnant like it was a terminal condition. I was reading and watching Gary Vaynerchuk whose mantra of hustle and momentum was, to say the least, inspiring.
Somewhere along the way, I had stumbled on the 4-Burner Theory as articulated by James Clear. At first, I adamantly rejected the idea. Here I was in the process of setting a broad range of goals and this theory challenged the reasonableness of those pursuits.
The 4 burner theory
The 4 burner theory is quite simple. Think of your life as a traditional stovetop. There are 4 burners each representing an important domain of your life. 1) Family, 2) Friends (Social), 3) Occupation/Career, and 4) Physical wellness. We tend to imagine that a well-balanced life is living with each burner turned up and burning in proportion to the others. With each burner working well — our life is a success. We convince ourselves that we can have it all if we just find the right recipe or time management technique. There is a whole industry around helping us find more hours in the day so that we can keep each burner lit without sacrificing any of the others.
The theory, as told by James Clear, states otherwise. It claims that if you want to be above average in any domain(s), you need to turn at least one burner down. If you want to be great in any domain(s), you need to turn two burners down.
What? That seemed wrong.
Want to have a great career, chances are that your health and your family will be less of a priority. Want to have a wild and exciting social life? Perhaps your career and family suffers as a result.
Even as I began to understand and see the cold truth behind this simple theory, I tried to reject it. What about balance? What about working smarter? Or, as Gary V says, what about working smarter AND harder? 1
James Clear notes,
“The Four Burners Theory reveals a truth everyone must deal with: nobody likes being told they can’t have it all, but everyone has constraints on their time and energy. Every choice has a cost.”
After wrestling and resisting the idea, I decided that the theory may hold some truth. I began to realize that some portion of my sense of unease was because I was spread too thin. I didn’t have anything I was driving at — I lacked direction and focus. If I could begin to commit myself to a more narrow range of specific goals — then I’d leave the shallow, mediocre version of myself behind and be on the fast path to happiness and success. I set a more narrow range of goals that year, and in subsequent years.
I rolled into this year without any awareness that I was about to have my core beliefs challenged over the next 6–12 months. Nor did I, or apparently anyone else, anticipate the coming global pandemic.
It first popped up as feeling lost.
It seemed eerily similar to how I felt in 2016. And yet, now I was good at setting goals and focusing on the areas that would support those goals. What was going on?
Let some burners dim, focus on a few things — and find success. That was the recipe. And yet, in the midst of a global pandemic, I saw each of my athletic competitions canceled. As bright as the physical wellness burner was — since my measure of success was competing, that area was going to feel like a failure.
All those hours, the consistency. That was the key to success — until it wasn’t.
Simultaneously, the fear of facing furloughs at work, no matter how brief, began to weigh on me. Could I afford (literally) to keep my career burner where it was at?
Mark Manson offers guidance here (my emphasis):
“What if the solution is simply accepting our bounded potential, our unfortunate tendency as humans to inhabit only one place in space and time. What if we recognize our life’s inevitable limitations and then prioritize what we care about based on those limitations?”
Prioritization is the part of the theory I’d neglected to appreciate. For most of the last 4 years, I never took the time to check the goals I was pursuing against my values, against the true priorities of my life.
I had been focusing on my health and my family while letting the other burners dim a bit. I kept the career burner alight with enough fuel to make progress but did not make it a true priority. My social life burner was running with only the pilot light. However, if I’m honest with myself — I really didn’t prioritize either my health or my family in a manner that would improve the quality of those areas in any significant way. Nor in a way that, in hindsight, aligns with my 5 cardinal values. I had set modest goals but didn’t actually build them in the context of my life’s priorities.
In terms of health, I focused narrowly on the domains of athletics and sport. I didn’t look at my health globally — to ensure, for example, that my biomarkers stayed in healthy ranges. I allowed myself to believe that if I stayed fit for the sports I was participating in, Olympic weightlifting and later triathlon — that was enough. I didn’t also have to worry about things like blood pressure, cholesterol, or my mental health. If I was fit enough to compete, I must be doing fine.
The same is true for my focus on my family. I made time to be home with my wife and children, I continued to coach my daughters’ soccer team, and I spent quality time with my wife. That burner was glowing brightly. Right? Again, however, if I’m honest with myself, some of these efforts didn’t really reflect my deepest intentions. This is hard to admit (and the subject of future posts). I was home with my family, but too often I didn’t bring my best self. Remaining distant when the distance was not called for. I had (and continue to struggle with) a persistent habit of speaking over others instead of listening and being open to conversion. I hadn’t contributed equitably to the responsibilities of our home. Furthermore, I made almost no effort to connect with family members outside of our small 3 bedroom ranch. I neglected to develop deeper relationships with extended family and to really spend time developing a strong relationship with my parents.
It has taken the experience of a global pandemic and a potent realization of the injustices being perpetrated in the world, and my complicity in this, to cause me to reevaluate how the 4-burner theory applies to my life, and to begin aligning my goal with my values — prioritizing my time and effort around goals that mean something to my life’s pursuit
Jerry Colonna talked about the questions he asks himself and his clients on his podcast interview with Tim Ferris. One that stuck with me is, “How have I been complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want.” In his book Reboot, Colonna follows this question up with,
“More to the point, what am I willing to give up to stop being complicit?”
Understanding my own role, no matter how small or large, in the situations I find myself in is a keystone to moving forward. Through, as Jerry Colonna calls it, radical self-inquiry, it becomes more clear that I must take full responsibility for my life — and the circumstances I find myself in. If I’m feeling lost, I must find how I’ve been complicit in creating these conditions.
This pandemic is showing me, in high relief, the limits of my time and energy as the world surges on. It takes real courage to choose to give up on a deeply held (even if flawed) belief. To give up on the notion that I can have it all — at the same time. Or even that simply establishing and pursuing goals was enough.
This year I’ve learned that the 4 burner theory applies to me as much as it does to anyone. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. I’ve also learned that the process of setting goals is only part of a map of possible paths forward. I must consider where I want to go — so that the map can help get me there. More importantly, I need to decide what kind of person I am and want to be. I will develop goals that are consistent and emphasize my values. The burners that align with those goals will burn brilliantly and I will be mindful of the results. I’m learning to be more fluid and adaptive in my goal setting (again, the topic of another post.)
Oprah Winfrey has been quoted as saying:
“You can have it all, just not at the same time.”
Acknowledging the 4 Burner Theory is not enough. Setting goals, and moving in the direction of those goals is not enough. Only by committing ourselves, fully with eyes wide open, can we see the full potential of a life of focus and commitment.
I picked on Gary here — but there is a lot of nuance in his message. He is clear that happiness is the fundamental variable to strive toward. He also says that this is a conversation of “one”. In other words, what is right for one person may not be right for any other person. But you have to be self-aware enough to know what the right amount of work, focus, and drive is for you alone.
Previously published on medium
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want a deeper connection with our community, please join us as a Premium Member today.
Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS. Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.