Four Burners Theory: An HSP Review

Feb 21, 2017 | Blog


Balance. That is the ultimate ideal. Or…at least that’s what we’ve been told.

But is balance even possible?

The Four Burners Theory says…yes. So long as you’re willing to be only marginally successful at everything. If you want to be good at ANYTHING, however…then the answer is no.

Soooooo what is the “Four Burners Theory?” 

Basically, the theory runs like this. In life, there are four primary “Burners” that we have at our disposal (as in…burners on a stove). Each “burner” represents a major area in our lives. We have a limited amount of fuel to burn each one. If you want to be successful at any of them, you really have to limit yourself to only three burners at a time. If you want to be REALLY successful…you’ll want to cut off two.

It’s a great mental experiment. Which burner would you choose to cut off if you had to? Which burners are you currently burning and are they in alignment with your highest values and/or goals? Are you, as David Brooks inquires, living for your resume (focused on your work and your personal health and ability to be productive) or for your eulogy (focused on your family and friends)?

Many of those I know in the highly sensitive community will tell you that they strive to live for the latter (their eulogy). I can’t tell you whether or not they are successful. I can only tell you that the yearning appears potent in HSP’s questions, articles, discussion points, and art.

In other words…most HSP, upon looking at a model like this, would probably gravitate toward connection.

But as an introvert highly sensitive person, my first impulse is to make some adjustments to the model.

  1. First – I would want to include the fuel source for each of these things into the model. In other words…what’s underneath this stove that’s powering each of the burners? In my case, I wouldn’t see “health” as a burner…but more as fuel. If I’m healthy, I have energy to burn and improve my work and my relationships.
  2. Second – I would include time alone in this model. And again, I wouldn’t see that so much as a burner. It would be fuel. If I don’t get time alone, I simply CAN’T do any of those other things. It’s not just a question of how much time I have. It’s a question of my capacity.
  3. Third – I would want to include more burners. In my mind, for example, I see finances as an entirely different area than work. I would see personal development as another burner…I think we have far more complex and nuanced stovetops than this model portrays. Or…at least do.

To be clear…the objective of the model makes a lot of sense to me. The real message its trying to convey is that life has trade offs and opportunity costs. We need to stop imagining that we can have it all and, instead, be deliberate about what we focus on. I’m just inclined to want to get more into the nitty gritty.

Leave it to an HSP to overcomplicate things, right?…Sorry. I couldn’t help it.

But at any rate…here are two questions for you.

  1. Just looking at the model as-is…which burners are you burning most?
  2. What fuels your burners and makes burning your metaphorical stove possible?