The Four Burners Theory — Why Trade-Offs Are Inevitable

The four burners theory is a way to think about the major areas of your life — family, friends, health, and work. It states that to be extraordinarily successful, you must turn one or several of these burners off.

But is that true?

Learn about the origins of the four burners theories, strategies for combining burners, and instances when you must simply pay the price.

What Is the Four Burners Theory?

The four burners theory assumes that there are four major areas in our lives:

  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Health
  4. Work

Where it gets interesting is the following stipulation — to be successful, you have to turn off one of your burners. To be extremely successful, turn off two of your burners.

The four burners theory was first popularized in a 2009 article for The New Yorker by David Sedaris. In this article, Sedaris recounts a trip to Australia where he meets Pat, a successful local businesswoman. During a drive to a restaurant, she tells him about the four burners theory. When Sedaris asks her which burner she has chosen to turn off, she replies, “family.” She goes on to explain her parents were both alcoholics and essentially not worth the trouble.

You can of course take this even further and just leave one burner on. If you focus all your time and energy on just one area of your life, you are bound to get extraordinary results, like few other people will. Think Steve Jobs or Michael Phelps.

Questioning the Four Burners

Now, the four burners in themselves are debatable. For example, the argument could be made that family and friends are really variations of the same burner — relationships.

There is a stronger correlation between these two than between all the other burners (albeit a negative one). If you invest a lot in your family, you are less likely to invest in your friends — and vice versa. You can observe this in young parents, busy with their children while neglecting their friends. You can observe the reverse dynamic in teenagers, busy with their friends while neglecting their families.

Also, there is no mention of romantic love in the four burners theory. Does that get added under family? But many people invest of lot of time and energy in love relationships that don’t result in family. What about these instances?

Also, your finances are not really addressed by the four burners theory. You might argue that this is included in the “work” burner. But not everybody successful in their careers manages their money well. I know people who make high six figures or even seven figures a year but are still in debt.

What about hobbies? What about play? Life is not just showing up to work and going home to your family. There should be moments when you immerse yourself in something inherently enjoyable to you, like playing the guitar or going to BJJ class. You could integrate this into your work (by turning your passion into your business), and I always recommend that people do so. But realistically, most won’t. So, that’s another burner not being addressed.

What about spirituality and religion? While I am not a fan of organized religion, there is something to be said about introspective practices like meditation or going to confession. For the secular, therapy might serve a similar function. But no mention of that either.

Not All Burners Are the Same

The four burners theory juxtaposes four core areas of life — family, friends, health, and work. This way, you are led to believe they are all equally valid. But that is not the case.

Health is the obvious example. If you start shooting heroin today, all other areas of your life will deteriorate quickly. Similarly, if you get diagnosed with final-stage lung cancer; all other burners will soon become obsolete.

Health is the basis for all the other burners. Yes, you can temporarily compromise your health, and in some instances, it might actually be a trade-off worth making. But if you truly turn this burner off, you have no future.

It might be a more accurate analogy to think of health as the gas tank of your stove. If there is no gas in the tank, the burners stop working.

You could also make the argument that work is limitless while the other burners are not.

On the other hand of the spectrum, we have work. Of all the four burners, it is the most recoverable. There is a quote by author by James Patterson which illustrates this point:

“Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you’re keeping all of them in the air. But one day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls…are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”

I am not sure if I would take it quite that far. Successful entrepreneurs tend to be successful because they have been at it for a long time and acquired certain mindsets and skills. If you turn off work for too long, you will be at a disadvantage. You will have a lot of catching up to do.

Still, Patterson does have a point. Relatively speaking, it is easier to “repair” your work burner than it is to repair your other burners. If you let you let your health slide for too long, the damage might be done. Same with your family; if you only remember you had kids once they are grown up, they might have no more interest in connecting with you.

The bottom line — the four burners are not as equal as they might seem at first glance. Health is the most foundational and influences all other burners. Work is the most recoverable of the four.

The Real Message Behind the Four Burners Theory

We can discuss the number of burners, their grouping, and their importance all day long. But that’s not the point.

The real message behind the four burners theory is this — to be successful, you must make trade-offs. You must be willing to miss out on stuff. And we are talking about major areas of your life — stuff that really hurts.

This message is crucial, exactly because it is such an unpopular piece of news. I observe this regularly with my coaching clients. At the beginning of their coaching journey, they will come to me with a long list of wishes:

  • “I want to start my own business.”
  • “I want to be rich.”
  • “I want to travel.”
  • “I want to date a model.”
  • “I want to be ripped.”
  • “I want to have hobbies.”
  • “I want to spend time with my friends.”
  • “I want to spend time with my family.”

When I tell them that they can have one of these, maybe two, but not all, I am met with refusal. Especially younger clients will go on pretending that time and personal energy are unlimited. Or, worse yet, they will insist that you can somehow “hack” life. Ultimately, these are infantile notions. Children have not learned yet that every life choice comes with a price tag. If you say “Yes” to one thing, you automatically say “No” to many other things.

The four burners theory rectifies this notion. It puts you at a crossroads. You can either become extraordinary at something. But then you must make peace with missing out on many other desirable options. Or you can live a well-balanced life. But then you will have put up with never excelling at anything.

Get over your refusal to make trade-offs. Admit to yourself that you only have so much time, energy, and attention on any given day. If you want to excel at something, you must narrow your focus.

5 Models for Distributing Your Energy

So, how do you go about choosing your burners, aka distributing your energy over the different areas of your life? Here are some strategies to consider.

1. Outsource Burners

In his article on the four burners theory, James Clear suggested that we can outsource one or several of the four burners. Other people have made similar suggestions; Tim Ferriss and “The 4-Hour Workweek” come to mind.

For example, we could hire a personal trainer to help with our health. We could hire employees to take our business to the next level. We could hire a virtual assistant to buy Xmas presents for our family members and friends.

In theory, this sounds good. But the problem with the four burners is that they all concern our innermost affairs. Yes, you can hire a personal trainer to help with workout programming and nutrition. But it’s still you who must lift the barbell and eat the broccoli. Nobody else can do that for you.

It’s the same with the other three burners. If you want to be truly successful in business, you must be present. Business gurus can bloviate about delegating and outsourcing all they want. But did Steve Jobs strike you as a hands-off guy? Does Elon Musk?

And if your customers and stakeholders insist on talking to you personally, rest assured that your family and friends will be even more insistent. Any attempt to outsource the relationship to somebody else is doomed to fail. You will just damage it permanently by subcommunicating, “You are not worth my attention.”

Also, outsourcing never truly frees you up. It just allows you to tackle higher-level problems than before. Let’s take business as an example. If you outsource your day-to-day operations to your employees, you will right away be confronted with higher-level, strategic problems. This is good, as it leads to growth. But you are just as busy as before. Plus, you now also have a team to manage.

Don’t get me wrong — outsourcing is great. It is actually a must if you want to become excellent at something. You will multiply your output with your chosen burner. But don’t think you can somehow turn that burner off.

2. “Hack” Productivity

Some people will argue that it is not about the time you spend on a task, but what you get accomplished during that time. “Work smarter, not harder,” that kind of thinking.

It’s true that just putting the hours in doesn’t guarantee success. It matters what you choose to focus on during these hours — pointless busy work or work that moves the needle. No argument there.

But you need both. You need to do the right things, but you also need to do the right things for 10 or 12 hours each day. If you think you can “hack” your way to becoming world-class, you are sorely mistaken. Michael Phelps didn’t practice twice a week for an hour each, using some magic swimming technique that only he had thought of. He practiced six days a week for 5–6 hours each day, drilling the basics ad nauseam.

Get over your hack mentality. While you are wasting your time looking for the magic shortcut, the Michael Phelpses of this world are putting in the work. And they will beat you every single time.

3. Combine Burners

Now we are starting to get to more feasible strategies. You can indeed combine various burners to get more done in less time. Here are some examples:

Instead of shooting the breeze with friends at the bar, meet them at the gym and work out together (health + friends).

Instead of hiring random employees, you can start a family business (business + family).

Instead of working an unhealthy desk job, you can become a yoga or a martial arts instructor (health + business)

Instead of separating your family and your social life, you can “adopt” your friends and bring them along to family outings, vacations, holidays, etc. (family + friends).

To be clear — you still want to do your due diligence. You don’t start a business with an unreliable family member. You don’t choose a friend as a workout buddy who is a couch potato and always making excuses.

But when you combine burners right, not only will you get more done; there might even be synergy effects. If your mother is doing your accounts, she is less likely to steal from you than an outside employer. If you bring your friends into your family, your parents might be able to call on them for help in case you are not around.

Done right, combining burners is a reasonable way to increase your output.

4. Choose a Season

The essence of the seasonal approach — you can do it all, but not simultaneously. Every burner has its season.

For example, as a high school or college student, you can spend more time socializing and working out. You have no other commitments but going to class and doing your assignments.

But once you graduate, your focus might shift. Now it’s all about your career and making money. The other burners get turned down, so you can put in long hours to climb the corporate ladder or start your own business.

Eventually, though, you start thinking about family. Now your career takes a back seat. You get serious about dating. You move in together. You get married, buy a house, and have kids.

Some people will shift their focus again once the children are off to college. They might decide to finally quit their 9 to 5s and start their own business as a senior entrepreneur.

This is certainly an approach that is widely used. But it begs the question — will it produce extraordinary results? That is the whole point of the four burners theory, after all. By turning one or several burners off, you can overtake the competition. You become world-class at something when most people get stuck at average.

I would argue that, in this respect, the seasonal approach falls short. It’s a good way to prioritize different burners at different periods of your life. This is really what it is — an approach to stress management. You don’t need to juggle four burners at once but can focus on one or two at a time.

But it doesn’t give you better results. It doesn’t make you great. By shifting your focus every couple of years, these intense efforts flatten out over time. You might have given it your all at work for 10 years. But if the next 10 years are spent focusing on family stuff, your overall career trajectory won’t be that impressive. You’ll be back in average land.

Just look at anyone extremely successful. Look at outlier entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk. They rarely (if ever) took their foot off the gas pedal. They knew full well if they did, someone else would bypass them. There is little “seasonality” to their lives.

There is one exception, and that is pro athletes. Because of natural physical decay, athletes have a certain window within which they must maximize their gains. Once that window closes, they are indeed free to move on to something else (business, family, friends). But it’s not really an exception. During their peak window, there is also no cycling back and forth. They must radically focus, or they will lose out to their competitors.

So, don’t buy into the seasonal approach, (unless you intend to use it for stress management). You don’t become Bill Gates by building Microsoft for 10 years. You become Bill Gates by building Microsoft for 45 years (Gates founded the company in 1975 and resigned from the board of directors in 2020). And this not taking into account that Bill Gates started programming at age 13, seven years before he even started Microsoft.

It is not what you do during a certain “season” of your life. It is the overall effort that counts, the bottom line. If you want to be the best, switching burners is not an option.

5. Downsize Burners

The four burners theory is a great analogy. It drives an important point home — to be excellent in one area of your life, you must fall short in most other areas of your life. There is no way to avoid trade-offs.

However, reality is not as rigid as the analogy suggests. It’s not so much an either-or game — burner off or on — as it is a game of percentages.

The better analogy is one of four (or however many) interconnected slider bars. If you move one slider bar up, the other slider bars must move down. However, the specific split is up to you. 

Imagine your daily energy reservoir as 100%. Now, you could technically dedicate 100% of your energy towards one burner, e.g., work. Everything else you ignore. You cut off your family and friends, and you get your fast food delivered or at the drive-through. You hardly need to get up from your desk anymore.

But you could also consider the following split. You do 5 minutes of bodyweight training every day. You stretch for another 5 minutes. You don’t eat or drink anything with sugar. That covers your health burner and might cost about 5% of your daily energy/willpower reservoir.

In the same way, you keep in touch with the most important person for you from your family. Maybe you have a weekly 30-minute phone call with them. In the same way, you keep in touch with one friend. This will cost you another 5% of your daily energy/willpower reservoir.

Now you still have 90% of your energy left to invest in your business, without dying from obesity or committing suicide from social isolation. It’s still a tough life, no question. But you will be able to play in the top league of your chosen game (work), while not self-destructing.

Other percentage distributions are of course also possible. You might go for 60% work, 30% family, 5% percent friends, and 5% health — a very common split that I see in my first-time coaching clients a lot. But understand — this way, you will never be extraordinary. You will never be on the front page of WIRED magazine or compete in the Olympics. And that is of course completely okay. Just have no illusions of grandeur. Know what you have signed up for.

9 Tactics To Maximize Your Burners

How do you put all of this into practice? Here are a few quick tips.

1. Keep Yourself Honest

Many people acknowledge the nature of trade-offs on an intellectual level. But as soon as it comes to their own lives, they try to weasel out of them.

Swallow the bitter pill. If you want to turn burners off (or very much turn them down), there will be a price to pay. If you want to be the best at your job, your family life will suffer. You might get a divorce. Your children might stop talking to you. You might lose most of your friends.

Vice versa, if you prioritize your family relationships, but ignore your money-making skills, there will be a price to pay, too. You will always feel stressed out about bills. You might struggle with putting food on the table. You might have to move in the middle of the night.

But if you live life in the life — aka strive for work-life — that comes with its own disadvantages. Yes, you will avoid major imbalances. But you will also never excel at anything.

There is no right or wrong here. As long as you are clear about what you are choosing and what it entails, it’s all good. But don’t pretend that you can somehow have it all. Such delusions will cripple you.

2. Define “Extraordinary”

If you do decide to turn certain burners off or down to become extraordinary at something, this begs the question of what extraordinary actually means.

It’s hard to answer in general, as it really depends on the thing or the field you are trying to master. But I find it useful to think of it in terms of leagues. I am usually not one for football metaphors, but I’ll use one here.

There are four levels at which you can play

You can play high school football; not everybody makes the team, but if you really want it, it’s doable

You can play college football; now, this is significantly more challenging. A relatively small fraction of high school players make that cut.

You play in the NFL. You are playing at the highest level. Very few college players get there. Even fewer play for a top team.

Now ask yourself where you are at. Because many people have delusions of playing in the NFL when they just barely made the high school team.

This is not to make you feel bad but to give you a realistic idea of what you are shooting for. You don’t want to turn off these burners to play high school. You want to play in the premier league and ideally have a chance at the Superbowl. Otherwise, why make these sacrifices?

3. Keep Health at Around 10%

Note: The following ideas only apply if you have a non-health-related vision, e.g., want to succeed at business. If your goal is to play in the NFL or fight in the UFC, obviously, look at the other suggestions further down.

Never turn off your health burner completely. It will always come back to bite you in the butt. Even if your goal is to become the next Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, you must maintain a minimum level of physical fitness or you won’t be able to perform at your best. Or worse yet, you might die before you get there.

The best way to do so is to ditch the gym. Work out from home, using your body weight. Get a pull-up bar or a sling trainer for the pulling portion of your workouts. Do 10 minutes a day. Done.

This approach will save you massive amounts of time. You don’t need to travel to the gym, you don’t need to change, you don’t need to wait in line for machines, etc. And the physical results will be as good if not better.

If you sit a lot, also do 10 minutes of mobility work every day for damage control. If you work standing up, you can probably save yourself this part.

Skip the cardio altogether. It is massively overrated. Just make walking part of your everyday life. That is more than sufficient for most people.

Finally, food. Don’t eat or drink anything containing sugar. If you want to take it one step further, stay away from most processed foods and grains. My personal rule — never eat anything worse than rice or potatoes. Again, this will give you most of the health benefits without you going out of your way in terms of cooking or ordering food.

4. Ditch People

We have very overblown ideas about socializing. It is fun, and therefore, we idealize it and justify. We will throw around terms like “my tribe” or “community” when we really just like to get together and gossip or get drunk.

You can make do with much less social contact than most people like to admit to themselves. In fact, it’s often a very healthy practice. Many people we hang out with don’t add anything; often, they actually pull us down.

Go through your list of friends. Go through your family members. Ask yourself, “Is being in contact with this person growth-inducing? Or are they just a way to keep myself entertained?” More often than not, it will be the latter. High-value people are rare, and it’s unlikely you are friends with them exclusively.

Of course, this only applies if you have a vision for your life that is not about family or friends. If those are your focus, then ignore what I just said.

5. Evaluate Your Dating

Dating can be a massive time-sink, especially when you are younger. I know, because I took it to the max. I dated hundreds of people in my twenties and thirties, and while it was a great experience at times, I would not make that choice again with what I know now.

We look to dating as this source of emotional fireworks. But when these fireworks go off, we tend to not get much else done. If you are serious about a non-dating-related life goal, you must put some strict boundaries in place.

One option is to partner up early and then stay with that person. The upside is stability (provided you choose someone compatible). The downside is a feeling of routine and sexual boredom. So, your goal better be worth it.

Another option is to become very good at “acquiring leads.” If you can easily flirt with and charm attractive mates, you can basically have companionship when you need it and turn it off when it’s distracting. As long as you play with open cards, there is nothing wrong with that.

Finally, you can pay for sex. It might not be popular to say this out loud, but many successful people I met opted for this. They had the money but they didn’t have the time (or the headspace). So, they made it worth the other person’s time. And as long as two consenting adults are involved, there is nothing wrong with this either.

6. Combine Burners

When you can, combine burners. For example, I have made it a rule to only talk to friends on the phone while I am taking a walk. This way, I am strengthening my relationships burner as well as my health burner.

You could also start a business with a family member (family + work), or start a health-related business, e.g., work as a personal trainer (health + work).

Just always ask yourself first if that particular combination makes sense. Starting a business with a family member or a friend might sound great on paper, but then turn out a fiasco, because they were not the right people for the job. Don’t get swept away by the efficiency promise.

7. Eat the Frog

Turning off burners is about allocating more time to your goal. But it is not just about the time you spend on something; it is also about the quality, i.e., the focus you bring to the game.

I am not talking about life hacking or such nonsense; in almost all instances, you waste more time trying to find shortcuts than just doing the work.

What I am talking about is a concept known as “Eating the Frog” (coined by old-time productivity guru Brian Tracy). In essence, you always start with the most intimidating or challenging task first, before you do anything else. This typically happens to be the thing that will also yield you the most dividends in the long run.

If you always eat the frog, you will never squander time. You will put those hours to maximum use.

8. Think Long-Term

Understand — understand you don’t get extraordinary results in three or six months. If you want to play in the “NFL,” i.e., be the best at what you do, we are at least talking years and more likely decades.

It cannot be any other way. If you could become Nelson Mandela, Warren Buffet, or Michael Jordan in six months of focused effort, everybody would do it.

But doing the same couple of hard things every day for 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years? This is where the sheep separate from the goats. Most people won’t even bother, some very few people will see it through. Make your choice.

9. Plan for the Halo Effect

The four burners theory rubs us the wrong way because it seems so restrictive. But in truth, by restricting yourself to one area of life, you often open up other areas of life.

You can see this with superstar athletes. They will turn everything off for their career. But once they are done, they are suddenly swimming in business opportunities. Because of their fame, connections, and wealth, this area has now become “easy” to them.

The same is true with uber-successful entrepreneurs. They might ignore family and personal relationships completely for years and decades. But then, ironically, they end up dating the top players in the sexual marketplace. By accumulating business accolades — fame, wealth, power — the social aspect of their lives has taken care of itself.

You could call this the halo effect of success. One area of success will bleed over into another area of life. So, in this sense, a certain balance might still be had, even if you decide to radically turn off certain burners. Just know that this balance will take place much further down the line. But it is something to look forward to and keep you on track.

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