Take a second and imagine the burners on a stovetop. The flames that dance on these burners are created by a supply of gas. Using that gas, you can crank one burner up to full, routing the whole supply to it and creating a single, bright flame. Or, you can distribute the gas, allowing a smaller amount to go to each burner.
This is how I think about the concept of work-life balance.
It’s often called the Four Burners Theory; each of us has a certain supply of gas – time, energy, motivation – and whether due to our daily choices or our obligations, that gas is distributed to four different burners:
And if you’re anything like me, the way your burners are set right now probably isn’t exactly how you really want them. Maybe the work burner is burning a bit too hot right now. Maybe the health burner is totally off right now – you haven’t had time to work out, or your sleep schedule is all out of whack.
Whatever the cause of that imbalance may be, I believe there are some habits you can adopt that will help to cure it – and today, I want to share three of them.
Habit 1: Create Obligations
My original script for this article listed five habits, with two of them being ones you might expect:
- Creating separation between your work space and the area where you relax
- Putting yourself on a schedule – going through a morning routine, getting dressed before you start your work, and having a set end time to your workday.
But, in truth, these are both specific examples of another habit, which is the creation of obligations.
When you want to do something in a balanced way, get in the habit of setting up an obligation that encourages that balance.
I use a combination of two obligations for my videos. I want to strike a balance between publishing new videos on a regular basis and pushing my editing and production skills.
So I create deadlines for my videos, but also push myself to improve at least one thing with each new video – which I then write down in my 1% Rule Log.
This combination of the deadlines and the log ensures that I’m never resting on my laurels, making content that isn’t pushing my skills – but also that I’m not letting my perfectionism cause me to never publish. I’ve learned from experience that trying to rely solely on self-discipline to strike this balance simply does not work as well.
As James Clear puts it in his book Atomic Habits (affiliate link):
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Obligations are simply components of a system that pushes you to live with the type of balance you aspire to.
So, here’s an example of an obligation for each of our burners – and hopefully these examples will help you think of your own obligations that will help you strike the type of balance you want.
For work, I’ve already mentioned the deadlines that drive me to finish and publish my work on a schedule, so I’ll just briefly mention that I use a tool called Beeminder that will literally charge me money if I don’t upload on time.
That may be a bit extreme for you, but as a perfectionist, extreme measures are very helpful to me. Without them, my brain tends to spawn dozens of creative ideas, and I have trouble letting them go.
For health, easily the most helpful obligations I have are the ones imposed on me by my coach, Matt. Whenever it’s a lifting day, Matt sends me a specific workout to do, and I have to upload videos proving I did it.
However, I also share my Apple Watch’s activity data with a couple of friends, which lets each of us see whether the others closed their exercise and movement rings for the day.
For relationships, I think you should schedule plans with friends in advance – especially right now, when we can’t go to our typical physical gatherings.
A weekly game night with friends is a great option, and there are a lot of games you can play remotely. Jackbox games are some of my favorites.
Finally, you have your hobbies – which could be creative and productive, like making music, or totally relaxing, like playing games. Obligations can be a double-edged sword with hobbies, as they can often turn them into work; I know friends who have started to feel anxiety about playing video games because they were keeping a backlog list and pressuring themselves to play through it.
My suggestion would be to apply strategic obligations to the other three burners first; in most cases, you should find that space for your hobbies is carved out naturally. However, you can also schedule time for them, just as you schedule time with friends.
Habit 2: Remind Yourself of What Makes You Happy
Now, even with well-structured obligations, I sometimes find my work/life balance tipping way too far into work territory.
When my work burner starts to burn too brightly, I’ve noticed that it’s often a result of me feeling a sort of pressure to “be successful” as quickly as possible.
If you feel this same pressure, it’s worth asking yourself this question: Why are you in a hurry? What, exactly, is causing you to feel like you need compress your timetable for success?
In other words, it’s useful to identify the external sources of pressure that push you to work harder. Sometimes, these are legitimate – like the deadlines imposed by a degree program. But I’ve noticed that a lot of the pressure sources in my own life aren’t actually legitimate, and they’re ultimately negative.
Sometimes it’s jealousy. Sometimes I’ll see one of my peers do something really cool, and I’ll get this temporary feeling of inadequacy, which pushes me to “keep up”.
Other times, it’s FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out.
The screens in your pocket and on your desk show you so many different potential paths you could go down. They feed you a potent combination: The highlight reels inspire you, the profiles of your peers put pressure on you to keep up, the endless tutorials can teach you anything, and the tools are often cheap and just a click away. The message is clear: You can do anything.
And since you can do anything, it feels like you’re actually losing something when you pass up an opportunity.
Finally, there’s the incessant pressure to keep the metrics that measure your success going up. It’s very easy to start to peg your sense of self-worth and satisfaction to an external metric. And you don’t just want to see it continue to go up; you want to see that change happen faster and faster.
I have a term for this: Acceleration Addition.
Over time, the same increases don’t feel as meaningful as they used to because our brains lack the ability to disregard our point of reference. A $1,000 raise seems huge when you’re making $20k a year, but not when you’re making six figures. A 10% increase in followers seems great one month, but next month you’ll be looking for an even bigger change. Your acceleration addiction causes you to constantly move the goalposts that define “enough”.
So you have to train your mind to find meaning elsewhere. No amount of success will cause these pressures to ease up if you continue to fixate on them. The jealousy, the FOMO, and the acceleration addiction will always be there, pressuring you to pump more gas to that work burner – unless you ignore them.
On the flip side, there are very few natural sources of pressure that will push you to live a more balanced life, and to do the things that truly make you happy. To fix this imbalance, you need to do a couple things.
First, reduce how often those negative pressures creep into your life. Spend less time scrolling through social media, check your stats less often, and practice saying “no” to opportunities that don’t truly excite you so you can become more resilient to the Fear of Missing Out.
But, secondly, you need to create your own pressure sources that push you to maintain balance. One great way to do that is to list out the things that really do make you happy. I did this myself, and came up with a list of seven items:
- Making things that challenge my creative abilities, and that require me to learn new things.
- Learning for learning’s sake – pulling on strings that interest me and seeing where they lead.
- Helping people, especially in ways that allow me to use the knowledge and skills that are related to my interests. This is why I make videos; it’s an art form that I truly enjoy, and it also allows me to share helpful knowledge.
- Spending time outside, especially when I’m moving in quick, complex ways. This is why I enjoy skating so much; a walk is nice, but it’s nothing compared to the rush of gracefully flying down the pavement, carving around corners, and leaping over obstacles.
- Spending quality time with my friends and family.
- Playing music. I mainly play guitar, but I also love to sing, play piano, and drum.
- Being physically fit. While I don’t really enjoy lifting, I do enjoy being strong, nimble, and able to tackle any kind of physical challenge.
Take some time and create a list like this for yourself, and then maybe post it in a place where you’ll see it often.
Get in the habit of looking at it and reminding yourself that the items on it are what truly make you happy – not the pursuit of some external metric of success.
Habit 3: Work With Intensity
To a certain degree, living a balanced life means sacrificing the potential to become truly great at one thing – or at least to do so quickly.
People who are truly great at their craft – especially those who become great early on – typically do so by turning down the heat on their other burners. Their craft becomes their singular priority, dominating their time.
If you want to become great at your craft as well, you’ll likely have to move in the same direction – but that doesn’t mean you can’t be strategic about it.
An incredibly ambitious goal might require you to cut time spent on relationships and exercise, but there are other things you should probably cut first.
Look at how you spend your time, then identify the low-value activities. Time spent mindlessly scrolling through social media should probably be the first to go; in fact, if you want to think back to our stove metaphor, this time doesn’t fit onto any of the burners. It’s more like poking a hole in the gas line with a nail. And by reducing the time you spend on it, you gain time for your goals without making cuts to relationships, health, or your hobbies.
But there’s another way to preserve the time you spend in these areas while accomplishing more: When you’re working, work intensely.
Move quickly. Don’t let a moment go to waste. Understand that the value of time isn’t determined solely by the amount of time itself, but also by the intensity and the strategic value of the effort you exert during it.
So do whatever you have to do remove any lethargy from your work time. Move with purpose. And move with a plan. Do your best to figure out the best course of action and order of operations.
More work-life balance tips on College Info Geek: 10 Ways to Find Work-Life Balance When You Work from Home