Making trade-offs to achieve your writing goals in 2023

Thoughts on burners, balance, and blending

It’s “new year, new you” season. If you’re a writer like me, you might be planning how you’ll approach your projects this year. And if, like me, you know you’ll take on too many projects this year and you see the dreaded stress, burnout, and soul-sucking disappointment on the horizon, lean in. I’ve got some thoughts.

James Clear, a writer and thought-leader on human behaviour and productivity, has written about the “four burners” theory. This theory envisions your life as made up of four quadrants, like four burners on a gas stove. Those four quadrants are family, friends, health, and work.

The four burners theory maintains that if you want to be successful, you can’t have all four burners going full-blast at once. You have to turn the gas down on one burner if you want to be successful, or cut one or two burners off completely.

Clear confesses that, at first, he wanted to find workarounds, so he could keep all four burners going and still be successful. For example, combining burners—such as friends and health, or health and work—but he eventually came to terms with what the theory is telling him about choice.

“Essentially, we are forced to choose. Would you rather live a life that is unbalanced, but high-performing in a certain area? Or would you rather live a life that is balanced, but never maximizes your potential in a given quadrant?”

James Clear

My two main thoughts from Clear’s article are this: 1) Work-life balance shouldn’t be the goal; and 2) Four burners doesn’t tell the whole story.

One: Work-life balance shouldn’t be the goal.

We are not bottomless wells of energy. We can only spend so much of our attention and energy and focus at a time, and we can’t keep up all aspects of our life on “full gas.” That way lies the aforementioned stress, burnout, and soul-sucking disappointment. But as Clear says, aiming for balance might mean that you aren’t excelling in any one area. Ideally, we should strive to put the right amount of energy towards the specific quadrants of our lives where we want to excel, when it makes sense—but it can’t happen all the time. You can’t give everything equal energy. Throughout your life, different burners will take precedence, and you will have to focus on them for as long as needed.

Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer of workforce productivity at Morneau Shepell maintains that there is no work-life balance. For Howatt, it’s all about blending your time.

“Most of us don’t live in two separate worlds where at work we focus only on work and at home we focus only on home.”

Bill Howatt

This blending concept resonated with me. I work from home, and the lines between those two domains are blurred. Hands up if you find yourself working over your lunch break or checking messages while you do laundry in the evenings. Keep your hands up if you also end up “homing from work”—making doctor’s appointments, checking personal emails, or throwing the laundry in the dryer when you’re on the clock. There’s no clear and definite separation, thanks to technology and the changing expectations of the workplace.

Instead of finding some elusive sense of balance, Howatt recommends using the tools of awareness, accountability, and action to find the perfect blend of work, home, and the other burners of your life you have to keep simmering.

Two: Four burners doesn’t tell the whole story.

The thing that really stuck in my mind was, why only four burners? I found myself hung up on the fact that the four burners model doesn’t represent my life.

As someone who works a day-job, does freelance work, writes in the early and wee hours, and pursues a variety of other projects and initiatives, I find the “work” label too simplistic.

I also volunteer. Is that work? Friends? Health?

Some people get great meaning and fulfillment out of their spirituality, and attend services and events related to their faith community. Where’s the burner for that?

Semantics? Perhaps. Maybe I need to forget about the specific burners. Maybe I need to make my own imaginary stove with enough burners to represent my life and have each one labelled appropriately: family, friends, work, writing, health, volunteering. We are each of us unique individuals with a wide variety of interests and responsibilities.

What it boils down to is no matter what burners I have on my stove, I can’t give them all equal energy all the time. I will have to choose for myself which quadrants of my life need the most attention and when, and how to light the other burners back up when it makes sense.

As Clear says, it’s all about trade-offs.  Am I okay with dialing back my creative pursuits while I ramp up my volunteer commitments? Can I give my partner less attention than my current WIP and still feel okay with it? What are the trade-offs that I’m willing to make?

These are the kinds of new-year thoughts I need to mull over this month.

What burners make up your stove? Have you ever had to put a burner on simmer while you gave another one more gas? How did it go? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Happy 2023 (and happy writing!) from the Restless Writers!

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Filed under Life and stuff, Motivation

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