Elon Musk is one of the most successful entrepreneurs on the planet but he works 100 hours per week. Sheryl Sandberg states that women routinely settle for non-leadership roles because they put their families first.
But can you have it both ways? Can a high achiever live a balanced life without making huge sacrifices?
A while ago, my buddy James Clear introduced to me to the 4 burners theory. And it’s a theory that forces you to think about your priorities in life and how to achieve success.
If you are not familiar with the 4 burners theory, here’s a brief synopsis.
Imagine that your life is represented by a stove with 4 burners on it and each burner symbolizes a major part of your life
- The first burner represents your family life
- The second burner represents your friendships
- The third burner represents your health
- The fourth burner represents your work life
The four burners theory states that in order to be successful, you have to cut off at least one of your burners and in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.
Basically, the theory is about sacrifice.
For example if you want to be an accomplished entrepreneur, then you have to neglect one or more of your family, friendships or health.
Do you consider yourself to be successful? Are you happy with these 4 aspects of your life? If not, then continue on below…
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The 4 Burners Theory – A Video Overview
Do You Want To Be A High Achiever Or Live A Balanced Life?
First off, take a quick moment and think about the most successful people you know. Do these people live balanced lives?
If you look at guys like Elon Musk, clearly the man has turned off 2, maybe 3 burners in his life. Now I love Elon and I admire what he’s accomplished thus far, but the man is the poster child of work life imbalance.
In a recent interview, he stated that quality time with his sons is also spent replying to work emails.
Because they don’t need constant interaction, except when we’re talking directly….I find I can be with them and still be working at the same time.
And when the surprised interviewer pressed him about checking email with his kids, he simply replied…
Yea, absolutely. I mean, not all the time, but a lot of the time. In the absence of that I would not be able to get my job done.
Now as an entrepreneur who has participated in many mastermind groups over the years, I’ve discovered that many people who I consider successful are often not happy with their lives.
They’ve given up so much to be successful in business that they’ve turned off their other burners.
Everything comes at a cost.
If you want to spend more time with family, friends or focus on your health, then guess what? Your businesses will not be as successful because there’s only so much time in the day.
We are all forced to choose but the decision is never easy.
- Would you rather live a life that is unbalanced where you kick butt in a certain area?
- Would you rather live a life that is balanced but never maximizes your full potential?
I ask myself these questions practically every day because I know I can’t have it all:)
But it all comes down to your priorities in life. What do you value the most? Is it family, friendships or work?
My Top Burner – My Family
My top burner is my family. Right now, my kids are like little businesses in themselves and they require a lot of my time.
Ironically, things were much easier when they were newborns. Even though babies are extremely needy, they require far less brain power. In fact, I kind of miss the younger years when they couldn’t walk or talk.
Back in the good old days, I didn’t have to make sure that they were getting educated nor did I have to drive them to so many activities.
Over the years, I’ve spent a good portion of my time coaching their volleyball and basketball teams and helping them with homework and Russian math.
But this is a conscious choice I made long ago. My goal with my kids is to never miss any of their activities because it makes a big difference.
When I was a child, my parents worked most of the time. And while I appreciate all of their efforts in raising me and sending me off to a great college, I wish we had spent more time together when I was younger.
Kids notice the little things. If you miss a soccer game or an important event, your absence will be ingrained in their memory forever.
In fact, the best thing that you can do as a parent is to simply be present.
Recently, my daughter was in the Sound of Music production at her school. I sat in the front row for all of her performances and I’m positive that she appreciated my attendance.
I love my kids! My wife is aite too:)
My Number 2 Burner – Health
My second most important burner is actually a tie between health and work. But why health?
Prior to my achilles tendon injury in 2017, health was probably my last or second to last priority but it shot to the top when I realized its profound effects on everything else.
If you are healthy, fit and get lots of sleep, you can increase the intensity of all of your other burners and achieve more with everything else!
Back when I was out of shape and weighed a lot more, I used to get tired easily. As a result, I wasn’t as productive with work and I often didn’t have the energy to go out with friends.
But after I switched to a low carb diet and lost 35 pounds, I have tons of energy now and never get food coma.
Editor’s Note: If you are curious about my diet, check out my post on What A Six Pack Taught Me About Starting A Successful Online Business
Your health matters and the more in shape you are, the more you can achieve. In fact, I believe that the health burner is the key to maximizing all of your other burners.
After all, you can’t accomplish anything when you are sick.
When I tore my achilles tendon 2 years ago, it was one of the least productive years of my life because I couldn’t exercise and I got depressed.
Overall, health is probably the first burner that most people neglect but it’s actually one of the most important ones because your other burners depend on it!
My Number 3 Burner – Work
As I mentioned above, my work and health burner are both similar in priority.
Back when I first started my businesses in 2007, it was all about work, work, work and money, money, money.
But now that I make far more than I spend every year, I’m now focusing my efforts on projects that give me the most fulfillment.
I’ve mentioned before on the podcast that my wife and I are purposely not shooting for exponential growth with our ecommerce store because 2 things always happen when sales dramatically increase.
- My wife gets stressed out with the increased fulfillment load and supply chain management, especially when it comes to dealing with Amazon.
- My wife and I fight a heck of a lot more
As a result, we shoot for steady, manageable growth from both a stress and cashflow standpoint. After all, our 7 figure store makes more than we spend as is without even counting the revenue from MyWifeQuitHerJob.com.
In terms of my blog, I find it very rewarding to teach others how to sell. I also enjoy public speaking and running my annual event, The Sellers Summit.
As a result, running MyWifeQuitHerJob.com actually contributes to my health burner and not the other way around.
These days, I primarily use my ecommerce store as a laboratory where I try all of the latest tools and marketing strategies and report my results directly to you.
In fact, I treat Bumblebee Linens like a crash test dummy and I’m willing to try practically anything to stay on the cutting edge of ecommerce:)
That is why you can trust my reviews and I’ll never take on a sponsor unless I’ve either used the tool in my shop or a close colleague has recommended the service.
Taking the “crash test dummy” approach allows me to have the best of both worlds.
It allows for stress free growth of my physical products business which makes my wife happier and frees me up to do what I do best, experiment and learn new ways to grow ecommerce businesses.
My Number 4 Burner – Friends
The first burner I turn off when things get hectic is the friends burner but don’t get me wrong.
I truly value my friendships but when my other burners are going nuts, I usually turn into a hermit and stop talking to anyone.
When it comes to my best friends, I don’t need to talk to them every day. Because when we do get together even after a long absence, it’s always as if no time has passed.
Overall, I don’t have much more to say about this burner except that I’ll always support any friend in need even if we haven’t spoken in a while.
Work Life Balance And The Symbiotic Nature Of The 4 Burners
Does focusing on any one burner mean that the others have to be turned down?
The answer is yes to a certain extent but it’s not a zero sum game. Nothing is black and white and all of the burners are interrelated.
For example when you improve your health burner, you can actually grow the intensity of all of your other burners which increases your overall throughput.
Similarly, if your family or friends burner is strong, you may receive support in other areas of your life that can drastically improve your other burners.
For example if the friends burner is strong, you might gain a workout buddy that will improve your health.
On the flip side, a neglected burner can negatively affect other aspects of your life.
For example, if your family burner is really bad, you may spend your time fighting which will negatively affect your productivity and work burner.
For the most part, you must choose your priorities while maintaining at least a minimum flame intensity for all of your burners. You can’t let the pilot light go out altogether.
How To Become A High Achiever With Balance
But the key question is, can you have it all? And is there a secret to keeping all 4 burners intense and strong?
One way is to outsource.
In our household, we often use food delivery services so we don’t have to worry about making dinner. We also have a housekeeper who cleans the house every other week so we don’t have to.
When it comes to business, you can scale your productivity by hiring more employees.
When it comes to parenting, you can hire a nanny.
These days, you can pretty much throw money at most problems to add additional burners but it always comes at a cost.
For example hiring a nanny allows you to do more work at the expense of quality family time. Hiring more employees comes at the expense of human resource headaches.
But done correctly, outsourcing is a great way to cheat the 4 burners theory.
The other way to keep your burners strong is by being hyper efficient with your time.
By eliminating activities like watching tv, playing games or just plain goofing off, you can increase the amount of time that you have for work, health, friends or family.
Focus On What’s Working
The other key to maximizing the burners you’ve got is by fierce prioritization.
When it comes to business, you can increase your throughput by only taking on projects that maximize your gains or make you the happiest.
For example with Bumblebee Linens, we try to focus on the customers who spend a lot of money and don’t complain:) And for our store, these customers tend to be event and wedding planners who buy from us in bulk.
When it comes to health, I focus on activities that give me the most bang for the buck. For example, I only do exercises that isolate the major muscle groups when I lift weights.
I play ultimate frisbee which provides a great cardio workout with a low risk of getting injured.
Overall, the key to maximizing your burners is to work more efficiently and not necessarily harder.
The 4 Burners Are Dynamic
The other key thing to realize is that your burners are dynamic and can be adjusted whenever you like.
Just because you’ve shut off a burner doesn’t mean that it has to stay off forever.
Looking back, the reason Bumblebee Linens was successful right off the bat was because my wife and I shut off our friends burner.
We didn’t go out, we stopped watching tv and we focused 100% on our business. I’m pretty sure that we lowered the health burner as well because we were both out of shape.
But those burners stayed off for only about a year.
In fact, you can stagger your burners however you like to keep them all running on certain days of the week or months of the year.
For me, the weekdays are my work days from 9-1pm. I rarely talk to anyone during those times.
Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons are health days where I’ll either play Ultimate or tennis or go for a run.
Weekends and nights are reserved for family and friends.
Some people like my buddy Andrew Youderian will devote an entire year to going hard on his business and then relax.
Your burners are not linear and you can achieve a lot more with each burner by going all in for a short period than when you have all burners going on at the same time.
Can A High Achiever Live A Balanced Life?
Bottom line, life is all about tradeoffs. You can’t have it all but you can come close if you try.
The secret is figuring out when enough is enough.
My greatest struggle has been second guessing myself as to whether I’ve maximized my full potential when it comes to work and business.
After all, I feel confident that if I put all of my chips down, I could create an 8 or even a 9 figure business but what would I have to give up?
Right now, my work is fulfilling and I make more money than I can spend. And with the way my burners are currently set up, I’m happy with 2 7-figure businesses.
Success in business is easy to measure but being a parent is not. So I’ve chosen to focus on family.
What are your burner priorities? Let me know!
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Steve Chou is a highly recognized influencer in the ecommerce space and has taught thousands of students how to effectively sell physical products online over at ProfitableOnlineStore.com.
His blog, MyWifeQuitHerJob.com, has been featured in Forbes, Inc, The New York Times, Entrepreneur and MSNBC.
He's also a contributing author for BigCommerce, Klaviyo, ManyChat, Printful, Privy, CXL, Ecommerce Fuel, GlockApps, Privy, Social Media Examiner, Web Designer Depot, Sumo and other leading business publications.
In addition, he runs a popular ecommerce podcast, My Wife Quit Her Job, which is a top 25 marketing show on all of Apple Podcasts.
To stay up to date with all of the latest ecommerce trends, Steve runs a 7 figure ecommerce store, BumblebeeLinens.com, with his wife and puts on an annual ecommerce conference called The Sellers Summit.
Steve carries both a bachelors and a masters degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Despite majoring in electrical engineering, he spent a good portion of his graduate education studying entrepreneurship and the mechanics of running small businesses.
2 thoughts on “Can High Achievers Live A Balanced Life? My Take On The 4 Burners Theory”
It reminds me of a saying we had on my solar car team in college: “School — social life — solar car… pick two”. And I found that to be pretty accurate!
BTW when I participated in the World Solar Challenge ten years ago in Australia, we came in 7th place, and Stanford came in 10th place. Just thought you should know that Stanford got beat by a small liberal arts college that lacks an engineering program. But we’ve also beaten Cal as well.
Love this article. I have really been thinking about this over the holiday, it’s the reason why I want to transition from self employment to being a business owner. What do you advice to switch that mindset from trying to do everything ourselves vs. learning to delegate, especially when we’re starting out and money is tight?
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