Choosing our burners wisely to avoid ‘burn out’

Having freshly returned to work from maternity leave, Ella, Leadership Development Director here at Maier gives a more personal angle on adjusting to life as a new mum, with the perfect timing of doing it as we steer our way through a pandemic! Enjoy.


Mat leave and the return to work hurdle

It’s nothing new I know; ‘work life balance’ is a concept used all of the time. In fact, as I type this my husband (whose morning shift is about to be handed over to me) is calling from downstairs asking: ‘Will you be on time?’ A reasonable question, on time to finish work promptly to start job number two, childcare. I simply answer with, ‘yes’, but internally I can feel the adrenalin levels rising and the anxiety slowly creeping in as I manically try and complete this paragraph before logging off for the day. Let the balancing act commence.

Balance, defined

  • To bring into or maintain in a state of equilibrium.
  • A situation in which two opposing forces have or are given the same power.

There are numerous definitions of ‘balance’, but I was drawn most to these two when reflecting on my ‘new normal’ (a phrase so often used during this pandemic, both personally and within organisations). It led me to conclude that seeking balance may not be the right approach here; let’s be realistic, the chances of maintaining a state of equilibrium as a new Mum are slim to none, especially in times like these! And looking at definition number 2, if these two opposing forces were ‘work’ and ‘family’, can I honestly say that both are ‘given the same power’ all of the time? Absolutely not.

So now I have accepted that ‘balance’ is out the window (phew, the pressure’s off there at least!), what are the ways that I can feel fulfilled, content and, crucially, avoid burn out?

The Four Burners Theory

As a coach, I often use models and theories as a way of offering a different lens or framework to view and reflect on a challenge or event. And I firmly believe in practicing what you preach, so let’s look at the Four Burners Theory to work my way through this ‘motherhood challenge’.

As James Clear states in his rather helpful article summarising the theory:

Imagine that your life is represented by a stove with four burners on it. Each burner symbolizes one major quadrant of your life.

  1. The first burner represents your family.
  2. The second burner is your friends.
  3. The third burner is your health.
  4. The fourth burner is your work.
Four Burners THoery

“The Four Burners Theory says that “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 two.”

THIS. IS. HARD.

As someone who wants to do ALL of these things and give them equal attention, the idea of ‘cutting off’ two feels extreme and, quite honestly, a stressful exercise. But the key is remembering that you don’t have to ‘cut off’ forever. The beauty of the model is that you can decide what burners need to be on full heat and for how long.

In his article, James poses this thought-provoking question:

“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?”

Perhaps, this is why I’ve struggled with the idea of ‘balance’. If we attempt a life of balance all of the time we are in danger of never achieving our ‘full potential’ in the areas that might matter most to us at a particular point in life. I would like to caveat here that there is absolutely nothing wrong if you are happy with balance in this way, but on a personal level, I know that I am energised most when I feel that I am pushing myself to develop and grow in some capacity. In other words, I thrive most when the burners are up high!

Choosing your burners

So, the big question now is, how to choose? James offers some useful tips such as ‘outsourcing your burners’ but the idea I found most useful is to think of life in seasons or chapters.

“Maybe you need to let go of something for this season. You can do it all in a lifetime, but not at the same damn time”.

In summary, the burners theory emphasises how beneficial it can be to stop, reflect, and consider which areas in life you want to crank the heat up on and which need to be simmering away in the background for a while. Importantly, let’s not resent having to turn a burner off or be hard on ourselves – instead embrace the ones that are turned up full!

I’ll give you a guess as to which burner I have chosen to turn up right now…My son’s final words on the matter as he bashes my keyboard with absolute delight:

“K7xsbglybo5. fuh nt  fdum”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.