Four Burners

“It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature. Let any obstructing cause, no matter what, be removed in any way, even by death, and we fly back to first principles of hope and enjoyment.” 
― Bram Stoker, Dracula

Pull up a chair, kittens, and let’s chat about how you prioritize your time and emotional resources. This has been on my mind lately as I’ve taken on new work, observed friends go through highs and low, cheered triumphs, and commiserated during setbacks.

Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton had a discussion on their podcast, The High Low, which touched on the notion of “having it all,” as being antiquated or inadequate to the various tradeoffs women (and indeed everyone) make in navigating modern life. A part of the conversation stuck with me in which they referenced a piece by author David Sedaris which, paraphrased, goes along the lines of: “A person has four hobs: work, family, friends, and health, and you can only have two or three of them going at any one point before things start boiling over.” It’s called the Four Burners theory and I have not been able to stop thinking about it for days now.

I think it’s made such an impression on me because it strikes me as generally accurate, but it also was a handy way to summarize a lot of my own thinking and struggles. In fact, looking back over recent years, I can see exactly which hobs I’ve had cooking and at what heat levels. I can tell when I’ve tried to have too many going at once and I can also tell which ones I’ve switched off.

I’ve called 2018 my Year of Health because I’ve made dedicated time and space in it to improve my wellbeing. It’s been a roaring success in many ways, which I’m sure I’ll get to writing about as 2019 looms, but I have switched off other areas of my life to provide the time and attention that I needed to get healthier. Some aspects of my friends and family relationships have changed as a result–I am less social than I used to be and treasure a smaller number of close friendships more rather than trying to constantly make new ones.

My work burner has been on full throttle for a couple of years now…because it’s had to be. London is not a place in which you have the luxury of getting complacent and as I’ve made certain choices around freelancing and contracting, I have had to stay hustling. Other passion projects have taken a back seat as I’ve needed to establish and reestablish myself over and over again, other priorities have had to give way in order for my work (and bill-paying) ambitions to be realized. I’ve had some amazing jobs and opportunities as a result…but might I have done something different? Or would I have needed to focus on my health the way I have if a few toxic scenarios hadn’t bled from my work life into my personal and wreaked havoc with my wellbeing?

The trouble with this metaphor is that I think it’s fundamentally correct–at least for me–in that it honestly deals with humans beings as somewhat limited creatures. I want to turn other burners on, but know I might have to switch others off first. Which do you pick?

I don’t have the answers, but I am thinking about this a lot at the moment.

Which burners do you have “on” at the moment? Which have you switched off, recently or in the past, and why?

One thought on “Four Burners”

  1. This is all very wise.

    My answer — obviously — is that my health burner has taken over for the past five months since my BC diagnosis; my damn breast still hurts! It’s all very very distracting and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Yesterday (yay!) I had four (!) meetings in NYC, and managed to get through them all (all mostly social, sort of work-ish) as my radiation exhaustion now is lifting. But there are times the body simply takes over and demands what it needs NOW — naps/sleep/surgery/treatment — and everything else has to take 2nd to 4th place.

    In normal times my 4 hobs boil quite well simultaneously (family being Jose) and without that balance, it’s not good. I think we all need all of these, in whatever measure.

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