four burner stove element

Are you struggling to achieve life balance?

Are you feeling the pressure to do it all but end up exhausted and feeling like a failure?

If you answered yes, you are not alone. 

I want to share with you something interesting called The Four Burners Theory

If you’re a mom trying to balance too many plates, keep reading. 

Imagine having the stove on, all burners are running. You’re cooking different dishes, stirring, adding new ingredients, turning heat up or down.

You’re tasting the food to make sure it’s just right, some pots are boiling over, food is starting to burn and get stuck to the bottom of the pan.

The fire alarm just set off, and now you have to start over because the food is ruined.

Sounds stressful, doesn’t it?

Think about the last time you had to prepare food for a large family gathering and you did most (or all) of the planning, prep work, cooking, and plating.

Imagine what it would be like to do this everyday. Could you do it? I’m going to take a guess and say no?

I wouldn’t blame you, that’s a lot of work for one person.

It’s a bit like everyday mom life, balancing many plates. It’s chaotic and overwhelming especially if you’re trying to do it all. 

If you’re a mom trying to achieve life balance but are unsuccessful, this post will give you a few practical tips to simplify and prevent burnout.

What is the Four Burners Theory?

The Four Burners Theory originates from work written by David Sedaris. In the article he wrote in 2009, he describes it as the following:

One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. The premise of the theory is 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.

Essentially, what he is saying is that you won’t have much success if you have all four burners going.

If you go back to my cooking analogy at the beginning, it makes sense. When all burners are running simultaneously, there is a risk of major overwhelm (doing-all-the-things mom life) and potential danger (burnout).

Is it possible to run all your burners without burning out? Yes and No. 

It depends on three things. How your prioritize, how efficient you are and how much you outsource or delegate. These are going to be key to whether you can manage all your burners without burning out.

It’s never this simple of course. What resources you have will determine if you are able to manage all areas. 

Finances, support from family and friends, are resources that will make it more manageable and less stressful.

Illustration of four burners theory examples
Illustration of the Four Burners Theory - Examples

If you’re a mom that works 60+ hours a week, you probably will not have the time to hang out with friends or take your kids to the museum during the week. 

You may need to accept that your social life won’t be exciting now but in exchange you will have more financial resources available to you.

The silver lining is more financial progress and contribution to family savings and/or investments. There will still be an opportunity to turn up the social burner in the future or when the time is right for you.

Life is full of Tradeoffs

It’s important to know and to accept that life comes with trade-offs. You may want to make progress in all areas of life at once, but at what expense? Something has got to give.

Making trade-offs doesn’t mean that you won’t ever achieve goals or make progress. It just might take a bit longer and/or one of your burners will need to be turned to a low heat or simmer until you can turn it up again.

Everyone has some limit on time and/or resources. Where you chose to allocate your time, energy and resources depends on you. 

The 4 Burner Theory is a great example of the trade-offs you might have to make if you want to excel in any one area in life. 

You can have all burners going at once but not at the same level of heat (attention). All life areas are important but it all comes down to trade-offs based on what matters most to you.

As a mom of two boys, my family and health burners are currently my focus. I acknowledge that not all my goals will be accomplished during this time because this is where I choose to focus my energy. This is my trade-off.

But, I can still plan for a time when I am able to direct some of my attention to another life burner like work or social.

One thing I’ve accepted as a mom is that I cannot do it all, but I can absolutely accomplish my goals with time. 

Do I wish I could make progress quickly and achieve my goals faster? Definitely. 

I also know from experience that doing all-the-things creates more unhappiness, frustration, and stress that I don’t need or want.

"The results of taking on too much is that nothing gets done. Or it doesn't get done well." Karen Martin

How can you achieve a balanced life?

I don’t have all the answers but here are a few things I consider that has helped me stay focused and sane.

Never compare yourself to other moms

It’s human nature to compare. It would be impossible to avoid this 100%. However, you can practice being aware of this habit.

If you compare or preoccupy yourself with someone else’s success, remind yourself that no one is perfect, has it all or never faces any kind of hardship. 

They have their struggles too, everyone does.

Real progress is made when you focus on the things that matter to you. 

Not what matters to some other mom. Always set your goals and manage your life based on what matters to YOU.

Avoid the comparison trap and accept that life comes with trade-offs for everyone. It will relieve you of the burden of feeling you have to do it all.

Now is the time to figure out what’s priority for you and your family. Once you’ve done that, you can focus your energy on one or two life burners and start making progress. 

No more wasting valuable energy chasing someone else life. You got one life, it’s yours, you lead the way.

Need an easy way to get started on setting your goals but don’t know where to start? Get my Free S.M.A.R.T goals worksheet here.

Prioritize your life - Establish your values

Do you always feel obligated to do more? 

Do you ever say to yourself “I SHOULD do this…” without really thinking about what is best for you?

Be careful of the “I should” language as you can get stuck in this pattern of guilt and pressure.

Now is the time to ignore the pressure to “do it all”, to let go of being super woman.

  • You do not have to be a perfect image of motherhood after a long shift at work by cooking meals from scratch.
  • You do not have to meet Pinterest standards for a clean and organized home.
  • You do not have to carry the entire burden of parenting and beyond.

The list can go on but, you get the idea. Before caving to pressure, ask yourself these questions.

Is it important to me? Does it align with my goals?

You’re doing more than you can handle, you’re burnt out and you’re not making the progress you want in your life. Will mom life always be this way? Of course not!

Haven’t established your goals yet? Don’t worry, I got you covered. Signup for my Free S.M.A.R.T goals worksheet and get started on your goals in just a few minutes. 

Simple steps to prioritize your life

Carve out a few minutes today to start prioritizing what matters to you. Here are three simple steps to figuring out what you should focus on right now.

1) Evaluate your daily routine and make a quick list of what you do on a typical day.

2) From your list, rank your tasks by importance. 1 can be highest priority and 3 can be lowest priority.

3) Take your highest priority tasks and put them under the appropriate life quadrant (family, friends, work, health).

After evaluating, you might discover for example, that you need to prioritize your health. If that is the case, you will focus on your Health burner by running it hotter than the rest.

Maybe you discover that you have a desire to renew your career after being a SAHM for several years. If so, then you would run your Work burner hotter.

You can turn your burners up or down (or off) when necessary and when it meets your priorities. 

Turning up all the burners (life areas) on at full heat can have you falling into bad habits and risk burnout.

Remind yourself to stay focused by prioritizing your needs. You can re-evaluate by doing these steps again when you feel that you are falling back into old habits. 

"You can't do it all yourself. Don't be afraid to rely on others to help you accomplish your goals." Oprah Winfrey

More tips to manage your burners without burnout

1. Set boundaries with yourself and others

 If you go off track and lose focus, hold yourself accountable. You need to show up for yourself and acknowledge when you lose sight of your goals. 

Everyone slips up so don’t let it get you down. Get up and move forward. Setting boundaries with others can mean that you say no when you are pressured to go against your values and your goals. 

The pressure and its consequences don’t affect them but it affects you so don’t be afraid to set boundaries!

2. Be mindful of your bad habits and build good ones

If you’ve gotten into the habit of doing it all and not asking for help, now is the time to change that. 

Your new habit can be asking your spouse, family, or friend for help. You can also make it a habit to assess your needs by using the 3-step process I’ve provided above. 

Whatever habits you have, make sure they help you create a balance not an imbalance.

3. Improve productivity

Focus on efficiency. Try task batching or other productivity methods to save you time and help you focus – Learn more about it here. 

Avoid creating extra work for yourself, keep it simple.

4. Delegate and outsource

If you have a spouse/partner or family member, don’t be afraid to ask for their help. You do not have to carry all the burden. 

Is mealtime a struggle? Outsource it if you can. Premade meals through a service or at the grocery store will save you time and energy.

5. Accept that there will always be trade-offs

You can do it all but not all at once. Life is full of trade-offs. Give yourself grace and remind yourself frequently.

"Nobody's life is ever all balanced. It's a conscious decision to choose your priorities every day." Elizabeth Hasselbeck

There are many ways to tackle burnout. The four burners theory can be a reminder that yes, we are human. Trying to take on more than we can handle as one individual doesn’t workout well for most.

I hope that this post has helped you see that doing it all doesn’t equal success. Nor does spreading yourself thin makes you a better mom or get you closer to achieving your goals.

Key takeaway: Based on the Four Burners Theory, to be successful, we need to focus on one burner at a time. 

In other words, we prioritize one life area to maximize success and achieve our goal. Provided that your goal is yours and it aligns with what matters to you. 

Refer to the Four Burners Theory whenever you need to refocus and revisit your goals. It’s also a good idea to begin your focus with this question… What matters to you most?

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