Early retirement, Goal setting, Life, Personal development

The Four Burners Theory and the Why of FI

What’s the secret to success in life whatever that means to you?

Well, I recently came across the four burners theory*, which in short, purports that each symbolic burner represents a specific important area of your life (see my stove representation below), and in order to excel in one area, you must cut off one of the other burners. To be very successful, you must cut off two (or even all) of your other burners.

While the middle classes are busily trying to optimise work-life balance, the four burners theory says that it’s a myth. Sure, you can keep all your burners going, but you will have to accept a life of average in all areas.

While it’s nothing we didn’t already know on some level already (and it’s not a theory that has research support, as far as I know**), this simple idea really struck a chord with me… or sparked something inside? It has a certain confronting finality about it.

Niklas Göke gives us some reasonable ideas of how we might deal with this major life constraint (e.g. outscource, accept, change focus at different times…), extended on by Simon Jeffries et al. at The Natural Edge, but ultimately reminds us of that ‘Life consists entirely of tradeoffs’. Ouch.

You may be able to relate. I’ve certainly spent years focused on work and friends. I called it ‘work hard, play hard’ as though I prided myself on my ‘agility’ to fill that ‘spectrum’, but what I was really doing was putting health and family on the back burner (so to speak!).

And when Firelite Junior came along and I had to reconfigure my burners, nothing could’ve prepared me for my new norm. Friends hardly get a look-in and my low fitness levels hit a new low, not having the time nor inclination to regain my core strength post-C section. This is how my life looks like now, with family and work tussling with each other for my energy. I don’t feel I’m succeeding particularly well in either by my own standards…

My kitchen stove, or a representation of energy I currently place in each area (burner) of life as based on the size of the burner

While there are more valued areas than these four in life (e.g. personal interests and fulfillment), focusing on these big four really does simplify it for me, so that I can see the wood for the trees. I can’t excel in family or work, and am letting people down as a result. Then, there’s the bill to be paid (to extend the analogy)… A bad back from a life sat behind a desk, friends drift away and potential social isolation…

Will financial independence impact on my burners?

One reason people start to consider early retirement or seeking sufficient financial freedom to leave their career is because they begin to realise how much of life their work has taken up. How much life energy and at what cost. I myself have wanted to take time out of work exactly to seek balance.

The four burners theory tells me I can have that balance, but at the cost of being particularly successful in any major life area as a result (except balance, I guess, though I’m realising this itself would still require self-discipline).

Retiring early does not necessarily solve the finite time/energy issue, I’ve noticed. So many on entering early retirement wonder how they ever managed to fit so much in a day! This therefore heeds us to think carefully about our future plans (in Life 2.0) while managing our expectations.

Also, once you take formal work out of the equation, you can focus on your relationships and health, as the theory dictates, but does the fourth burner need a replacement? Surely there were ‘why’s behind how high each burner was burning and the whys behind work need to go somewhere?

Previously, I’d contemplated on what activities I could do in a ‘midlife gap year’ that I’d be spending the 12 months prior whittling down, which included:

  1. Write a book – probably non-fiction
  2. Find my cause (and support it)
  3. Increase my fitness – perhaps do a yoga course?
  4. Work on my painting – my ultimate creative pursuit
  5. Do some full-time/serious studying – Perhaps global health?

While I knew I couldn’t do everything I wanted so needed to narrow things down, it’s dawning on me that maybe I can’t EXCEL in any of these things like the way I was hoping for if I’m also to focus on raising my child and continue to have a happy marriage. Rather than fulfilling, I may find the whole enterprise of personal projects highly frustrating. Also, options 1, 2, 4 and 5 are at odds with increasing my fitness, as they replace paid work with an unpaid project also mostly involving sitting still for mindbogglingly long periods.

Financial independence may enable you to fulfill a passion (to the cost of the other burners) or help you achieve a more balanced life (but excel in none). But not both. And especially if your monetary capacity to outsource is limited (e.g. having a nanny, cleaner, eating out).

So, I asked myself why do I put so much time and energy into my work? If I want to leave my job, then why aren’t I doing the minimum? Surely, there are things I value about my work that a replacement therefore needs to fulfill. This is the ‘why’ of the burner (to extend on the original theory).

The ‘why’ of the high burner: What I get out of my work

Clearly, the fact I get a quite lot of fulfillment out of aspects of my work is something I am very grateful for and has made it difficult to decide to leave. I try to put my all into any job I take on. It’s very easy to focus on the dislikes. After all, I have been doing much of my current role for the last 17 years – marriages don’t last that long!

Since I’ve been writing this blog, it’s occurred to me that whether I like it or not, my identity and esteem are highly tied to my job and vocation. I have to be willing to give that up if FIRE is going to satisfy me. Meanwhile, I was yearning for creative freedom in my previous reflections. If I want creativity, a major trade off for me is status/esteem and impact on others. (I don’t expect to be professional successful in anything creative.)

Come to think of it, I guess this is why I had a whole list of things I wanted to do! It’s a fantasy list to replace existing work and exceed for personal fulfillment. It also rids of the aspects of my job I can’t stand (see below), that are part of work life for many who work in large competitive environments.

The possible whys of putting my work on the back burner

When I’ve reflected on what I’d like to do most when I leave my job, writing was the most likely candidate, but since doing this well enough requires being way too still for too long, my current conclusion is that I need to get fitter and healthier first, and not try to be too ambitious if I’m to succeed in that. Any dabbling in the other areas really needs to be secondary.

Of course, many seeking FI already know that they want to create streams of passive income or start their own business, and that’s fine. You’re replacing the ‘work’ quandrant for work you want to do that may be more compatible with your other quandrants if it takes up less time or offers more flexibility than your current job.

Niklas Göke says that accepting the limits of the four burners can be empowering as we can live our life in seasons. This sounds exactly like what financial independence is all about. So while we may have been at full throttle with work when we are in our our most productive years (and hoard/invest to free ourselves later), we can then turn to health, family or passion projects later on, and then change again further down the line.

The important message for me personally is to not fool myself into thinking that without formal work I can now have everything else! Replacing work with personal projects will be more satisfying potentially, but not necessarily more balancing. I can focus on health an fitness on FI in order to regain what I’ve lost, then say a year later, turn my mind to writing to fulfill areas that I used to gain through work; e.g. intellectual stimulation, while health shifts to maintenance mode.

I wonder if the fourth burner is really personal hobbies and fulfillment, and a fifth burner in the middle that moderates the rest is health and fitness. Others have argued that a fifth burner is ‘purpose’.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-13.jpeg

I have found the four burners theory helpful in the process of thinking about ‘re-mapping’ my design for Life 2… My journey OF financial independence. Time again, avid FI seekers are told about the need to focus on what we will do IN early retirement, yet we tend to focus on the numbers, which are nicely concrete and with a much clearer process. I’ve been guilty of it myself, of late.

I realise I’m not ready for a life of average, so FI will give me the flexibility to ramp up my focus on different stoves at different times and to rebalance (somewhat) with less guilt…

Over to you: What does your four burner stove look like? What are your trade offs when you reach Financial Independence, and how can you prepare for or mitigate that eventuality?


*The theory is first mentioned by David Sedaris in The New Yorker Magazine. A nicely detailed discussion here, if you’re interested.

**Based on a quick google Scholar search.

5 thoughts on “The Four Burners Theory and the Why of FI”

    1. Thanks! Yes, J, definitely an interesting time to reflect. That’s something I didn’t particularly reflect on at the time, but perhaps this is why I was so drawn to the theory.

      Also something I didn’t mention in the post, but the theory kinda helps let us off the hook a little when we feel like we’re failing miserably (whatever the reality is) at balancing life. Thanks for your comment. 🙂


  1. Interesting post – I think I would say that for much of my working life, the burners on the hottest were work and health, followed by friends, with family on the lowest setting. However, I think for the last 5 years or so I’ve pretty much got them all burning, though none of them at the highest setting so pretty much balanced. I think once I’m not working, the ‘work’ burner will be replaced by one for ‘hobbies and interests’. I’d include in here side hustles which you do in your own time and volunteering etc.


    1. Fab, sounds like a great balance! A very healthy attitude. I realise I am always going to be a bit achievement oriented or like to throw myself into things! It must be a purpose thing but it does throw me out of kilter. Even if it’s voluntary work or a hobby. Or parenting lol.

      It will be great to follow your post FI journey on your blog! Your side hustles will give you some continuity too, or are you planning to develop new ones?

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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