The Four Burner Theory for How to Manage Your Ambitions

Brought to you by American Express OPEN Forum

James Clear is an author and productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help nearly half a million newsletter subscribers optimize their habits. Nir Eyal is a tech entrepreneur, Stanford University educator and the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. The two recently sat down to discuss a new approach to work/life balance, how to maintain optimal motivation and how to turn one simple action into a cascade of good habits.

This conversation has been excerpted from the “Open Minds” video series on American Express OPEN Forum®. View the complete video and series for more on habits.

For more on habits, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.

Nir: I loved your article on the four burners. Can you walk us through that?

James: It’s a way of thinking about work/life balance. Originally from David Sedaris, the theory is that there are four major burners in our lives—our family, our friends, our work, and our health. In order to be successful, the theory says you can only have three of the four burners on at one time. In order to be very successful, you can only have two of the four burners on.

It’s this idea of trade-offs. Do you want to have your family and your work cranked up, but then you sacrifice your health and your friends, or do you want to have family and friends but maybe you can’t be as ambitious with your career and your health?

We all have to make these decisions. We want a life without trade-offs, but there are constraints that we all face.  I think there are three main ways that we can attack the central problem that life has trade-offs.

The first one is outsourcing. We do this all the time. We outsource our dry-cleaning, we take [our car] to the mechanic. In a certain way, parents dropping their kids off at daycare is like outsourcing the family bit for a few hours while they go to work. We can also automate a lot of it through technology. 

The second option is to set boundaries in our lives. We can say, “I want to be very ambitious about my work, but only within this constraint.” For example, a friend of mine runs a surfboard company, and they only are open from 9:00AM to 1:00PM every day. They work very hard for four hours, and then they’ll stop and go surfing in the afternoon.

The third option, and the one that I find myself leaning towards the most, is to look at our life as a pattern of seasons. You can turn certain burners up or down during particular seasons. Maybe you get out of college, and your health and work burners are on full blast. You haven’t really started a family burner yet, so that one’s dialed down.

Then a decade later, you are building a family, so that burner gets more juice, and maybe your health dips a little bit to accommodate for that. I like the idea that you can do many things in your life, just not all at the same time. You have to choose: what season is this for you?

When we apply this to workplace psychology, what’s interesting is how we build these cultures. Which burners the leaders choose to turn on and off often end up impacting what the employees choose to turn on and off. If you have a culture where the leader is cranking up the work burner full blast and their health burner is very low, then you end up with this culture where the employees often feel guilty about not doing the same. Or if you have a leader that’s very balanced and makes time for things, leaving at 4:00PM to go see their kid’s softball game, or their music recital, or whatever, then the family burner for the employees ends up getting cranked up as well. We imitate the burners that those with authority and status turn on and off.

Nir: One company in the Bay Area has a wall that says in big print “Work hard and go home” because the CEO of the company wanted people to know that this is not an always-on culture. He respects the fact that people need to go home, turn off email, and do something else, have a life.

James: If leaders are looking for ways to build better habits within their company, they need to think about the social norms that we have now and how we can adjust those. This is actually a very powerful force for driving behavior because in many cases the normal behavior of the culture overpowers the desired behavior of the individual.

You may want something else, but when you step into that culture you follow suit. People who are aren’t jerks go into a culture where it’s more cutthroat, and then they start acting like one, or someone who isn’t religious walks into a sacred space and they get quiet or silent. Why? It’s not because they built that habit or they wanted to. It’s because this is what the culture does.

Nir: Something that I look for [in successful companies] is what Carol Dweck calls “the growth mindset.” There’s nothing about our conception of self that’s fixed. At least it doesn’t have to be. If we think we are the way we are and can’t change then of course we can’t—whereas, if we believe we’re the kind of people who can improve, that’s [what] radiates out from us to others.

I think when it comes to how we build this culture, how we get more productivity from our teams, it’s about not worrying so much about the tactics. A lot of companies want me to tell them, “What do I do? Tell me what software I need, or what hours people need to have. Tell me what sign I need to put on my wall to get people to do things I want them to do.” Really, it’s much bigger than that. We know we can build environments and interfaces to get people to become more likely to do the things we’d like them to do, but that’s too detail-oriented. What really matters is the strategy, and the strategy has to do with building a culture of open communication.

Far too often, we forget to have working sessions where we can air grievances, where we can have a routine of special time and place. Not to just get stuff done, but a routinized mechanism of “What can we do better? What’s in our way right now? What can we, as an organization, do for you, as an employee, to improve things?” You’d be amazed how instituting that habit can change so much in workers’ day-to-day lives.

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James: This is making me think about motivation [and how] we increase it. One of my favorite metaphors for how to achieve optimal motivation is to imagine you’re playing a tennis match. If you’re playing against Roger Federer or Serena Williams, it might be exciting for a minute, but if you are trying to have a serious match, it’s going to get boring pretty quickly. They’re going to win every single point. Conversely, if you’re playing against a four-year-old, it might be cute for a minute, but if you’re actually trying to have a real match, it’s going to get boring very fast because you’re going to win every point. But if you play someone that’s right at your level, where you win about half the points and they win about half the points, that is the most motivating thing that we could possibly have.

The way to achieve optimal motivation is to live right on that border of our abilities. There are a couple of different ways that we can measure this. One way is with variable reward, [drawing from] B.F. Skinner’s work. Half the time, you get what you want, about half the time you don’t. That’s one way to judge if you’re on the perimeter of your ability. The second way that you can judge it is the 20 to 25% more [phenomenon]. There have been interesting finance studies that have asked people, even millionaires who have a high net worth, “Do you feel financially secure?” People always say no, no matter what level they’re at, and everybody picks about 20 to 25% higher than what they have as the point where they feel secure.

I call this the Goldilocks rule. The Goldilocks rule says that humans maintain optimal motivation when they are working on a task that’s not too hard, not too easy, just right. This idea that we can somehow live on this border is the way to actually stretch ourselves.

James Clear, productivity expert
James Clear, productivity expert

Nir: How do you differentiate between habits that are done with little or no conscious thought and routines? A lot of the things that people describe as habits, I don’t know if I would call them habits. Like working out—that’s not really a habit because you don’t work out with little or no conscious thought. You’re not managing your team with little or no conscious thought.

James: The key is to automate the first two minutes of it. I call this the two minute rule. Not every habit or behavior can be accomplished in two minutes, but any habit or behavior can be started in two minutes or less. And so, if you can automate starting it, then you can trust that this cascade of good behavior will follow from it, and so the conscious routine will come afterward.

One of my favorite examples is Twyla Tharp, a famous choreographer, who wanted to work out for two hours every morning. Her habit was stepping outside and hailing a cab. She just tried to automate the ritual of getting her clothes on, stepping outside and hailing the cab. She knew that once she got in the cab, she would follow through with the two hour workout. But she didn’t think about the big, complex tasks.

Nir: This relates to your idea of habit stacking.

James: Exactly. The idea is to make it as easy as possible to start a habit, [and then] you can chain them together. You start with something that’s already part of your day, and use that as a trigger to prompt that next routine. When I make my morning cup of coffee, then I will meditate for 60 seconds. After I meditate for 60 seconds, then I will make my morning to-do list. After I make my morning to-do list, then I will do the first task of the day. I think it’s actually very useful in the workplace, to stack these habits on top of each other. You can get really good process flow by figuring out the optimal order to do things.


Nir: What about the hard ones, the ones that you really don’t want to do?

JamesThe most useful way to do this is not by forward-facing measurements. Almost always when we set goals for ourselves, we measure forward. “I want to earn X amount of money in the next quarter. I want to lose Y number of pounds in the next four months,” or whatever. It’s all forward-facing. Instead, it’s much more useful to measure backward.

For example, every Friday I look at the amount of traffic that’s coming to my website, how many new subscribers, revenue, expenses and so on. The purpose of doing this in short cycles is that I can make decisions informed on what’s actually happening rather than what I want to happen in some ideal world. I can make three-month milestones, three-year milestones, but we have no idea whether that’s true or not. If you measure backward, then you can try to advance just a little bit from where you are. I call it “normal plus one.” You take your normal behavior from last week, and how can we add one to it? One dollar more, 1% more, one rep more, whatever it happens to be. A small increase.

Managers can do this with their teams. Whether it’s the number of sales calls that were made last week, or the amount of revenue brought in, or the number of new customers onboarded, how can we measure where we are right now, base our decisions in reality, and then try to find some way to advance just a little bit? If you can improve by a small margin, it can end up making a massive difference over time. If you get just 1% better each day for a year, you end up 37 times better at the end of the year.

Small improvements, a normal plus one decision, the Goldilocks rule—[these are] not just nice to have, they can be very significant and substantial for a team over the long run.

For more on habits, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.