The Fifth Burner
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
Two years ago, I made a commitment to my health. Seventy pounds overweight, with a nascent drinking problem, I woke up one day and didn't recognize the face looking back in the mirror. I had spent eight years building a company, nearly that long raising a daughter (much of it as a single mom), and had pushed my health so far down the list of priorities in my life that I couldn't even see it anymore. I was so focused on being a good business owner and a good mom that I'd lost track of what it took to be a good Lacy.
So, I hired a trainer, Teddy, and committed to seeing him three times a week. Because I'd never been able to make early-morning or after-work workouts fit my schedule, I took a time with him smack in the middle of the day, blocking off 90 minutes on my calendar on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and made that time is absolutely non-negotiable. Unless Oprah or the Pope were to request a meeting, I do not schedule over my time with Teddy. (And even then, I'd probably try to negotiate.)
In addition to my training schedule, I also cut way back on my drinking (when I have a little too much now, I wonder how I ever functioned at work, drinking as much as I before) and started to find ways to get outside more—I was casually dating and paid close attention to which guys glued themselves to barstools six nights a week and which ones didn't flinch when I suggested going on a hike. (My partner, who I met during that time, is an avid hiker/kayaker/outdoors-person who never turns down a good adventure.)
Basically, I deliberately tipped the balance of my life toward my health and away from the things that were killing me—overwork, alcohol, and unhealthy relationships. It was the first time in my life I'd done this consciously, and it took a lot of work and reinforcement. At first, I had to convince myself that this was the right path, and that my business wouldn't fall apart if I took a 90-minute lunch three times a week. Then, I had to convince everyone in my office that my workouts were, in fact, non-negotiable. (They were easier to convince when they saw how much happier I was when I was exercising regularly.) But now, two-plus years in, it's simply who I am. I'm a woman who works out, loves the outdoors, and drinks moderately. (Most of the time.)
My New Reality
But. (There's always a but.) Now I find myself in the position of needing to tip my life into another direction—to shift my balance to another direction—and I'm struggling with how to do it and maintain my health. And my relationships. And my career.
Recently, I've been reading a lot about the Four-Burner Theory, first popularized by David Sedaris in a piece in The New Yorker. Basically, it says that you have to think of your life as a four-burner stove, with one burner each for family, friends, career, and health. To be successful, you have to cut one out, and to be really successful, you have to cut two. For a long time, I cut out the health one entirely, and I've never really turned the friends one up very high. (I joke that I have friend, not friends, but that's not true. I have two friends and they are both lovely.) My career flourished, and I have a happy—if small—family.
When the time came for me to focus on my health, my career was at a point where it didn't need tons of attention to keep humming along. The company I own was doing well, and I had enough extra-curricular career activities that I stayed top of mind for folks to think of when they needed someone to speak at an event, or sit on a board. I was doing just fine, thank you, and didn't really feel the urge to do much more.
Enter the "but." In early 2019, I realized that I was only about 18 months away from my 40th birthday, and I hadn't accomplished a couple of the things I'd always said I wanted to. I hadn't published a book, and I hadn't started a consulting business.
Two Desires, One Burner
The book has been a life-long desire. For as long as I could remember, I've wanted to write a book. My undergraduate degree is in journalism, and writing is the single creative outlet I have. (I cannot paint, draw, sing very well, or play an instrument, but I can pound out a blog with the best of them.) However, the years continued to slip by without any progress on my writing at all. I began to feel like a fraud, telling people I was a "writer." Writers write. I just talked about it, and blogged about the logistics industry very infrequently.
The consulting company was a more recent itch to scratch. Nearly ten years into running a $30 million company, I have a wealth of knowledge about business management, culture, finance, sales, marketing, and etc., and I really get jazzed sharing that knowledge with others. I know that consulting is going to be my second act, whenever I decide I'm done moving freight, and I wanted to make some progress toward that goal—again, to stop talking and start doing.
Tackling these two things, though, meant something else had to give. I already turned off my friend burner, and with an eight-year-old daughter, I don't really have the luxury to turn off the family one. In order to turn up my career burner to full blast, that left health. And that terrified me. I didn't want to backslide into being significantly overweight, and I didn't want to give up the mental-health benefits I get from regular workouts. (Nor did anyone else in my life.) How was I supposed to shoehorn this new career into my life without blowing up my stove?
The Fifth Burner
In order to figure out this problem, I had to analyze the problem from all angles. My ethics prevent me from working on my writing or my consulting business when I'm at my day job—the people who work for me deserve a dialed-in boss—so I had to look at the rest of my time. What I found was nothing short of a revelation.
I have a fifth burner.
(In fact, I think we ALL have a fifth burner. I'm not some fancy Viking cooktop over here, mocking all you apartment stoves with your four lousy burners and tiny ovens.) I think the four-burner theory overlooks something important in the way our lives are organized today—the abundance of leisure time many of us enjoy. (Obviously, I'm speaking from a position of privilege, not having to work three jobs like my parents did most of my childhood, and as many people have to today just to stay afloat. I'm aware that the luxury of leisure time is just that—a luxury.)
Americans, on average, watch 2.9 hours of TV a day. We spend, on average, 2.2 hours per day scrolling social media. In total, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend 5.3 hours per day on all leisure activities—watching TV, reading, on social media, working out, etc. I would venture a guess to say that's more time that we spend on any of our other burners, except career. (And let's be honest, some of that time at work is spent scrolling social media.)
I was no different. I don't watch much TV, outside of Reds games and whatever nonsense my daughter talks me into for her prescribed 30 minutes of TV per day, but I do read voraciously—it was not unusual for me to read 2-3 books a week. And before I put strict limits on myself, I wasted more than enough time every day on social media and news websites. I had a burner going, using up my energy, that I had never even acknowledged. I was dedicating more than 20 percent of my days to leisure activities.
Cutting Off That Burner
And before I decided to crank up my career burner, that was okay. I wasn't neglecting any part of my life to enjoy devouring books and spending long, lazy weekends reading blog posts and sleeping in. I didn't have any other use for that time, and mostly, my leisure activities brought me a great deal of joy. But now, I had a new passion in life, and I knew exactly where I was going to find the time to pursue it.
Since discovering this untapped mine of time in my days, I've worked hard to curtail my leisure activities without eliminating them entirely. I quit social media in April, so I didn't have that to worry about, but I still wanted to get outdoors and read the occasional book. I didn't want to turn off the burner entirely, because I knew that would burn ME out. But I did change my schedule significantly. Now, instead of sleeping in on the weekends, we'll usually get up and knock out a hike or kayak early, so we can spend the rest of the day working on our creative projects (my partner is an artist and writer, as well). When my daughter is with us, I'll put her to bed and spend an hour working before picking up a book to wind down for bed.
I still read at least one book a week, and I work in outdoor adventures when I can. Plus, I've become much more disciplined about my time after work. My evenings are a well-choreographed combination of household activities and side work, and as long as I stay on track, I can get it all done. I've even started getting up earlier each day to walk in order to offset more time in my home-office chair.
While I won't say that finding this fifth burner has made trying to write a book while also launching a consulting practice easy, it has made it easier. There are still days when I look at the stack of library books on my coffee table and lust after a long sunny afternoon spent reading them, and every so often I'll wonder what's happening on Twitter (Spoiler: nothing) but for the most part, I'm ecstatic that I'm able to work several hours most days on projects that are bringing me so much joy and creative energy without having to sacrifice my current job, my family, or especially my physical health. And those two friends.