When the “Four Burners” Theory Doesn’t Cut It.


You may have heard of the four burner theory (James Clear, author of the best selling book, Atomic Habits, describes it concisely at https://jamesclear.com/four-burners-theory). It goes like this: Family. Friends. Health. Career. Each of these is a burner, and you can’t have all the burners on at once. To be successful you have to turn off one of the burners. To be really successful you have to turn off two.

But it seems to me that as women, and particularly for homeschooling moms and/or women with a private practice, despite amazing progress, we are most likely to get to “pick” fewer burners to have on at one time. Partly because of emotional labour. Partly because when you work from home or you homeschool, a fifth burner -the house and home burner- is right there in front of you. All. The. Time.

But sometimes we want all the burners on, damn it! Sometimes we don’t want to choose!

One week this summer I was reminded how much reaching out for just a weeee bit of help can make it a bit easier to keep those burners on. Even just for one glorious moment.

I had a monthly drop-in to run in the summer. It landed at the same time as my sons’ swim lesson. It looked like I’d need to cancel the drop-in or have the boys miss swimming and come with me. I didn’t like either of these options. The boys had already missed one lesson thanks to a dentist appointment that was booked 6 months ago when the summer was spread open as a blank set of pages in my calendar. I didn’t want them to miss another one! I also didn’t want to cancel the drop-in –it’s free and is a way to share my time and knowledge. And we are not anywhere near family where we live. So here I was with a near perfect overlap of swim lesson and infant drop-in: there were about 25 minutes (5 minutes before swimming and 20 minutes afterwards) that I was required to be at the infant drop-in. 25 minutes between me and two burners staying on: work and family.

Now here is where things got dicey and/or exciting depending on how you look at it. My boys take swimming lessons with another child with whom they play afterwards for about half an hour. And their mom is always there too. Could I just ask her if she would be ok being there for my boys? Could I actually pull this off with a bit of help?

When things are “this close” to working, I decided to ask.

Now the old me: the afraid-to-ask-for-help me and the that’s-asking-a-lot me would not have asked. Heck, even last-week me, or next-week me perhaps would have cringed and said it’s not worth it. But this week I just wanted to shine a little more –to reach a bit more and do what was important to me without holding back what was important to my kids.

And thanks to a mom who I’ve chatted with during swim lessons for the past 6 classes, and to her husband who was there, I did. I did what I wished to do, and what I felt was in reach.

Maybe this isn’t the Olympics. Or a Nobel Prize. Or the summit of Mount Everest. Maybe next time we’ll choose to “miss all the things” and sit on the back porch with our feet in the kiddy pool. But this week I feel like I climbed to the top and planted a flag with all four burners on. And it felt great.

Maybe I can’t have all four burners on at the same time all the time. But sometimes the stars align and, to paraphrase Aerosmith, I don’t have to miss a thing.

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