The Four Burner Theory

No Regrets: Work-Life Integration Part 4


This article is part of a 7 part series No Regrets: Integration Work-Life. 

Part 1: Who will make all the Mai Tais?
Part 2: What amount of work is the right amount?
Part 3: The might of Retirement
Part 4: The Four Burner Theory

What do we really want?

Douglas Mcgregor said that work is necessary for good psychological growth, and furthermore that those managers who believed this managed better, with happier employees.

Abraham Mazlow observed self-actualised people experienced metamotivation – the need to continue to strive but to contribute to something beyond themselves.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote the book ‘Flow’ about entering a flow state where enjoyment and challenge meet in creating something wonderful with your natural gifts.

My sister trained as an Occupational Therapist – the core concept is that occupation, being occupied is essential for the wellbeing and indeed celebration of the human being. Millions of years of evolution have brought us to the point where imagination means our minds are always active.

So if we must do something, what should that be? The very middle-class-knowledge-worker answer is: Something fulfilling or something that enables you to be fulfilled.

If the job is ‘work’ (i.e. to the detriment of your wellbeing) then ‘leisure’ must compensate for this to an equal amount. We aren’t pursuing joy, we are pursuing happiness and contentment. However, if your job, your occupation, is at least partially fulfilling then the need to counterbalance it is reduced.


Work Leisure

Unknowingly this is often what is meant by work-life balance. And whilst we can probably say that someone who is entirely fulfilled by their job only is either very lucky or unhealthy the other end is true also. If we do nothing that feels like ‘work’ this is likely to be unfulfilling although each person relationship to work is very individual and dictates where on the sliding scale is best for them.

But this isn’t really work-life integration. That comes where what is seen as challenging is also fulfilling and/or inherently enables your wellbeing. On a simple level, this might be being good friends with your work colleagues (think the ‘I have a best friend at work’ question from the Gallup Q12 engagement index) or a job that asks you to travel and gives you time to see the sights, and that is how you would choose to spend your time.



Of course, it’s rarely as simple as the diagrams suggest but at a basic level work tends to contribute or enable fulfilment to some degree (even if it only funds your hobbies and home-life for example) and integration is when it’s more essential to that fulfilment.


Location flexibility (not to mention flexibility in general) is a big part of that. In fact, the idea that work is to our detriment, despite all the evidence that we need work to be healthy, probably stems from the idea work is inherently inflexible.


As a final example of how it works think of food. Food is necessary, just like psychologists tell us work is. But food can also be more or less nourishing, meaning we might need to take supplements or spend time down the gym counteracting the effects of bad food. Overall if we get the right balance of food and healthy life we tend to stay in good health. However, we can also choose food that’s more healthy, nourishing and enjoyable. It might not be the first thing on the menu but it can be found. Choice is key to achieving this and work is the same. So just as we are now learning healthy eating doesn’t mean dieting or simple ‘low fat’ it means having sustainable, nutritious, enjoyable, easy food, we are also learning that getting work/life right might mean doing work that reinforces our identity and gives us a sense of achievement without cost to our leisure time which further helps us rejuvenate mentally and do things purely for enjoyment.


The emphasis seems to be on employers to make work more fulfilling to ensure better integration of what we might call work and leisure. But alternatively, this model suggests we could spend some of our time on a hobby that is challenging and earns money. Consider the bank teller that enjoys working with customers and creating art. They probably couldn’t afford to just be an artist, but neither do they want to neglect their passion for the job they enjoy. With more and more financial transactions being automated and self-service, with a good enough wage the teller can cut to part-time hours and pursue a hobby which, when he can sell his work, tops up his disposable income. I somehow imagine the anger created by the occasional tough customer being expressed on canvas the following day, which then gets sold back unknowingly to the cause of the emotional turmoil. But I’m just mischievous.


The question for businesses then is: ‘Do we enable this kind of choice in how we think about work? Do we create that flexibility even when that isn’t something our leaders have chosen?’ The second exposes a key assumption. If the trend is towards fewer hours spent in work, then on the whole those who have been working longer (and more likely to be leaders) have grown up in cultures where that flexibility isn’t the norm. It might just not be on their radar to value and encourage that level of flexibility.


The Four Burner Theory


Now this way of thinking about the integration flies a little bit the face of something called the ‘Four Burner Theory’ (which for those in the UK would be called the Four Ring Theory). The theory comes from a great article by David Sedaris in the New Yorker about his time travelling in Australia. The theory has since been removed from the context and reshared hundreds of times as a self-help staple, so I thought I should address it here.


‘Pat was driving, and as we passed the turnoff for a shopping center she invited us to picture a four-burner stove.

“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter.

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that 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.’


Now, I like this theory if nothing else to prompt thought. It’s not a validated concept but as a thought experiment, it isn’t a bad one. Firstly, work/life integration essentially suggests that you might not have to choose. I mean metaphorically you are occasionally using the one burner for both. Think sportsperson – they are combining work and health. However, if they are top of their game, the four-burner theory kicks in and at least for the time that they remain ‘elite’ they are probably sacrificing family and friends.


The reality of the Four Burner Theory is there are definitely some people who are living it. If you are a leader for example and you are cutting off friends and health to focus on work and family, you may well be at the top of your industry, as the model suggests. And as long as you are anyone who wants to compete with you will need to make similar sacrifices. My problem is this, aside from the obvious issue of the potential to combine the burners, I think it’s a slightly false idea of competition. I don’t need to be the best, or even amongst the best, to be successful. The more society at large practices ways of turning all Four Burners down a bit, or using one burner for more than one thing, the easier it will get for others to do the same thing. The working single mum can be as successful as the young guy with the support from a homemaker (sorry to play into stereotypes). But we aren’t there yet. Within the anecdote, we also need to address the definition of success – but that could be an article in itself.


What I like about the idea is even with integration, there are likely to be choices. Can you find a job that is wholly fulfilling but also maintains your health? Can you do a job that you love and helps you travel the world and still build a family? Or see the one you already have? Even in the highly desirable world of WLI we have to make compromises. However, I would argue a more common compromise is security/consistency. If you are trying to live a life with high choice, at the moment this probably means being a freelancer, but you lose some of the security with that. If you are a leader trying not to ‘do it all’ you will have to delegate (effectively) or outsource and that comes with the risk of not having done exactly your way. Giving up micro-management might be the first step for some people towards having more freedom in life and more enjoyable work but it’s still a trade-off.

Photo by Charles Betito Filho on Unsplash