An argument against work-life balance



View all posts

Achieving the perfect work-life balance is a hot topic as of late. Suggestions include things like scheduling exercise classes after work, never eating lunch at your desk, and outsourcing chores like grocery shopping.

The thing is, I don’t have a work-life balance and I like it that way.

I used to avoid telling people that, but I’m no longer ashamed about it thanks to James Clear’s article on The 4 Burners Theory—it finally gives me a way to defend my anti-work-life balance vote.


What’s The 4 Burners Theory?

The 4 Burners Theory asks you to envision your life as a stove with 4 burners. Each burner represents a part of your life:

  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Health
  4. Work

According to Clear, “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 2.”


Clear explains that while he tried to find workarounds, all he could come up with was the realization that life is filled with tradeoffs. He offered 3 ways to handle this problem:

  1. Outsource the burners. This could mean hiring employees, which helps you outsource some of your work burner or you could hire a nanny for your children, which helps you turn down your family burner.
  2. Embrace your constraints. The question to ask yourself is, “Assuming a particular set of constraints, how can I be as effective as possible?” Clear explained.
  3. My favorite option: Take a seasonal outlook on life. That means you should divide your life into focused seasons. This is what I’ve done for my life, and it’s how any entrepreneur, who is feeling guilty for turning down a burner or 2, should look at their life.
“Embrace your constraints.”

For example, I’m a single and driven twentysomething who’s perfectly fine with turning down all of my burners except for work.

According to Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade, your twenties are the defining decade of adulthood. 80% of life’s most defining moments take place by about age 35, and two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens during the first 10 years of a career.

When people tell me I’m living an unbalanced—and therefore unhealthy—life, I brush it off. They believe because I’m nearly 30 and single, I need to focus on dating and friends—like working less is going to allow me to meet the man of my dreams.

Bill Gates is a prime example of a wildly successful entrepreneur, who—whether he knows it—subscribes to The 4 Burners Theory.

According to the BBC, Bill Gates worked an obsessive—some would say unhealthy—amount of time in his early days.

“Gates admitted, ‘I was quite fanatical about work’ during those early days. ‘I worked weekends, I didn’t really believe in vacations.’ He also noted that, while he was more intense than most people, he was ‘no more intense than Steve Jobs was,’ invoking the name of a similarly driven and similarly successful tech icon.”

Now, the world’s richest man works so little, he’s able to squeeze in 50 books per year.

“Don’t apologize for putting work before life.”

“‘Eventually I had to loosen up, as the company got to a reasonable size,’” he said. And he said that meeting his wife, Melinda, also changed the equation. ‘She arrived at kind of the perfect time, and we fell in love… Now we actually take quite a few vacations. I’m sure myself in my 20s would look at my schedule now and find it very wimpy indeed.’”

My point is this: The importance of each burner will change throughout life. Depending on who you are and where you are in your life, different burners are going to be more important to you than others.

This is perfectly fine. Don’t let people make you feel bad about it.

In the words of Nathan Barry:

Commit to your goal with everything you have—for a season.

More posts like this

Lauren Holliday
Lauren Holliday is the managing editor at Toptal and  the founder of Freelanship. She also teaches a course on full-stack marketing. Want to read more? Follow her on Medium.

Join over 3 million designers

Who get our content first.

No sales pitches, no games, and one-click unsubscribe.

Over 3 million designers
get our newsletter
every week

Find out why

Get awesome design content in your inbox every week

Just like over 3 million of your fellow designers do.

Plus get 3 free downloads, just for signing up.

Give it a try—it only takes a click to unsubscribe.

Thanks for signing up!

You should have a thank you gift in your inbox now—and you'll hear from us again soon!

Prototype better experiences with InVision

Just like over 3 million of your fellow designers do.

I agree to InVision's Terms of Service.

Want a free t-shirt?

Join the 3 million+ designers who get our newsletter weekly for your chance to win!

We hate spam as much as you do, and you can unsubscribe anytime.

Double your chances to win!

Tweet and automatically get a second entry

Tweet Now

No Thanks

Stay in touch!

We share news, freebies, and more on Twitter.

Follow us