I overcommit constantly. Doing too many things is in my nature.
My morning routine comprises no less than six major activities, my work days are usually twelve to thirteen hours long, and my close circle of female friends is officially up to sixteen.
Consequently, every so often I will be hit with what my husband refers to as “emotional bad weather.” I will go from having seemingly endless mental energy and physical stamina to finding myself unable to even imagine standing up.
On these days, I look like a green-tinged Victorian heroine collapsed on a fainting couch.
It’s not a good look.
Overcommitting makes me less effective, more exhausted, and less able to “have it all” than before.
But I know my tendency to overcommit stems from an insatiable interest in so many different areas of life, work, learning, and relationships. Paradoxically, that interest is what gives me energy and makes my life meaningful.
Understanding this tension between my limited resources and everything I want has led me to develop a daily practice that lets me have almost anything without becoming overcommitted. And the inspiration for this practice came from a humorist’s memoir.
The Four Burners
“The problem is not the problem; coping is the problem.” –Virginia Satir
In his short essay Laugh, Kookaburra, David Sedaris describes a lesson he learned from a businesswoman named Pat. To explain why she’s successful and happy, she invites him to imagine a four-burner stove.
“‘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.”
This story resembles many life management guides that suggest sleep, work, family, friends, fitness, and more always compete for your time and attention, and so inevitably you’ll have to pick just three. Or two. Or four.
But who wants to accept that success means systematically cutting out parts of life as central as family, friends, health, or work?
Yet I understand the wisdom in an approach that demands focused attention and limited commitments. I know the perils of overcommitting just as well as I know the disappointment of cutting out whole areas of life that make it worthwhile.
That’s why I’ve chosen to apply the four burners framework to my days, but not to my entire life.
Each day, I turn on just two burners — or if an area is particularly demanding, one. If I’m truly making the right decisions, the daily results add up so that by the end of a week, month, or year, I’ve managed to turn on all four successfully.
Through daily imbalance, I come closer to more complete balance over time.
Applying this approach breaks down into three simple steps: definition, assignment, and choice.
Definition: Understand What Each Burner Means to You
Family, friends, health, and work mean different things to different people. Before you jump into the daily practice of choosing one or two to focus on, make sure you know what you’re actually choosing.
Draw a vertical line down the center of a page. In the left column, write the burner. In the right column, write what subcategories it includes.
Be very intentional in how you assign these subcategories and know what you write will be different from what others do.
During the exercise, periodically ask: What does this burner mean to me?
For example, health is my broadest category because I consider physical, mental, and emotional health to be inextricably linked and equally important.
I also believe restoration and relief are tied to health, but the way I find both is through learning and the arts.
That’s why my list for health looks like this
Sometimes, subcategories from different burners will partially overlap. For example, writing is on both my health and work burners, though it’s often a different kind of writing.
When I’m lucky, it isn’t a different kind, and I manage to essentially turn another burner on without any extra energy expenditure or productivity loss.
Assignment: List at Least Five Ideal Behaviors Per Burner
“Happiness is a how; not a what. A talent, not an object.” — Herman Hesse
Once you define what family, friends, health, and work mean to you, visualize what perfect success in each one looks like.
This step is essential. If you don’t break down your subcategories, you risk falling into the trap of cutting corners and falling back into old patterns.
For example, if I defined health in terms of sleep but didn’t specify “getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep,” I might be tempted to say I hit my health target because I squeezed in four hours of sleep.
When you find yourself slipping into this kind of rationalization, I suggest reading Mary Oliver’s poem “Hum, Hum” for this reminder:
“Oh the house of denial has thick walls
and very small windows
and whoever lives there, little by little,
will turn to stone.”
Once you choose not to see things as they are, it’s very hard to come back. You’ll get stuck and end up having less without being able to admit it.
However, once you really know what success looks like, it becomes much easier to achieve and maintain.
Think about it this way. When you’re firing on all cylinders at work and absolutely exceeding expectations, you feel better than when you’re not. You wish you could feel that way all the time.
By understanding how you achieved that success, you can assign certain behaviors to that burner, and use those behaviors to replicate that success.
Returning to my health burner, I feel my best when I:
· Sleep eight hours
· Work out for at least an hour right after waking
· Drink my Mushroom Matcha tea (which is linked to improved brain function)
· Read for at least an hour
· Practice guitar once in the morning and once in the evening
That’s just an example of five behaviors, but I have dozens more that I can review and recombine depending on how I’m feeling about my health that day.
Choice: Commit to One or Two Burners Daily
Once you know what your burners mean to you, and what behaviors you’d need to incorporate into your routine to fully realize them, you can adopt the daily practice.
All you have to do is pick two burners to focus on (one if you’re dealing with particularly tough challenges), and write them down somewhere. Commit wholly to achieving success in them. Just them.
I use my Desire Map Planner to plan my day, so each morning I’ll write my burners in the corner as a note to myself.
Since my planner contains both my to-do list and my schedule, I can make sure I’m prioritizing the items best aligned to my burners throughout the day.
Of course, sometimes I feel I’ve chosen the wrong burners, or feel guilty about who or what I cut off for the day.
If I haven’t chosen my friends burner, I know I won’t be answering texts promptly or reading through my personal email inbox at all. If I’m not careful, I’ll feel like a bad friend.
But then I remember that when I do focus on my friends burner, I’m more present, attentive, generous, and helpful.
In fact, since I started this practice, the one thing I’ve heard most frequently from the people in my life is that I seem more engaged. I’ve been called an active listener and a problem-solver more in the last few months than ever before in my life.
So, if that means I’m harder to pin down or less responsive, I’ll take that trade.
Turning on just one to two burners at a time works for me almost every day. The operative word is almost.
Some days, through a combination of inspiration, opportunity, fortune, and flawless timing, all four burners will blaze perfectly at once. On these days, you may soar above your own standards across health, work, friends, and family.
Celebrate such days and accept them as gifts, not future standards to be met. Otherwise, you will inevitably allow yourself to become overcommitted in the future, and will forget to be grateful for what you’ve already done for yourself and others.
On a few other days, you might not be able to get the stove to turn on at all.
Perhaps a friend will have a crisis, shifting around your priorities and objectives, but then you won’t have the tools, focus, or right words to provide relief.
Or maybe, for reasons unclear, you will languish on the couch, staring at a blank television, paying attention to nothing and no one.
On such days, it’s important to forgive yourself. Heightening expectations and turning on your inner critic will only lead to more paralysis.
Sharon Salzberg describes this phenomenon beautifully in Real Love:
“As long as we judge ourselves harshly, it can feel as if we’re making progress against our many flaws. But in reality we’re only reinforcing our sense of unworthiness.”
Striving to be your best self by incorporating the burners practice every day is an admirable goal. Holding yourself punishingly accountable to achieving that goal, no matter the circumstances, will only stand in the way of reaching it.
When it comes to self-care, the process is as important as the outcome.