Burnout and the four burners theory

Four burners

I was brought up by a single parent mother who raised me to believe I could ‘have it all’, but what I didn’t really understand for many years was that I couldn’t have it all at the same time.

I recently came across the ‘four burners theory’ which is quite a neat way of representing this, if a little overly simplistic. No-one is quite sure of the origin of the theory, but it goes like this:

Imagine you have a stove top with four gas burners, but only enough gas to keep a maximum of three burners alight at once. The four burners represent:

1 family

2 friends and social life

3 health and well-being

4 work and career

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be hoping I’m going to explain how you can keep all four burners going on full. I’m not, because you can’t. And it took me a ridiculously long time to work this out. And I burnt out more than once, and had to take time off work.

However, you can, as I said, have it all, if you don’t try and have it all at the same time. At the moment my family is taking up a lot of my time and energy- my son is doing important exams, my oldest friend (basically my sister) is going through a divorce. So that’s one burner full on. Work is pretty busy, as usual, so that’s another one. In the old days the burner I’d have given up on would have been health and well-being, but not anymore, so that’s three, which means that my social life is pretty much non-existent at the moment. However, last week I was away at a conference, which meant no real family obligations, and the chance to spend a lot of time socialising with friends. So I switched burners for a week.

I’d recommend that you always keep your health and well-being burner switched on, because if you don’t, you soon may not be able to do any cooking at all (!), but you can play around with the other ones to a degree. The key thing though is to fully accept that you have to make some hard choices. You can’t just turn all four burners to max and hope for the best without having a gas explosion (is this metaphor getting out of hand?)

Many of us find this hard to accept, or we simply avoid facing the reality, but being mindful is about being fully conscious, and these kinds of decisions are vital if you want to live a well-balanced life.

So, which burners do you have on at the moment, and are you consciously choosing this as the best possible scenario for now, or unconsciously heading for burnout?

14 thoughts on “Burnout and the four burners theory”

  1. Nicely explained 🙂 Reminds me of Richard Thaler’s theory of mason jar economics and mental accounting – I’m pretty good at that side of things (as a freelancer, one has to be, as you know!) but need to pay more attention to my burners (especially friends and social life!).

    1. Thanks, Dave. I hadn’t come across that (Thaler’s), but just looked it up. I find all the stuff about mental bias fascinating, the way we bend the way we see things, often completely unconsciously.

      1. Thaler is brilliant – and highly entertaining – on all that, as is Dan Ariely – also recommended reading!
        Great posts – keep ’em coming!

  2. Very interesting post Rachel. Since I have cut back on work, it is easier to balance these all but I do understand what you mean by it being impossible for them to all get the same amount of attention at the same time. Part of it, for me, is looking at what is under my control (making sure I exercise, have dinner with my partner, go out with friends, meet deadlines) and part of it comes from outside (having to rush out without time to exercise, being away so no dinner together, having friends cancel on me for whatever reason, being given new deadlines or not getting materials I need on time). This way of looking at the work-life balance helps me enormously when things get to be too much (as they do for all of us, I suspect.)

    1. Thanks for commenting, Marjorie. I think a key thing is also accepting how much is actually outside our control- even deadlines at times- and making our peace with that.

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