Is it burnout or success? I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this question. Not only in the context of my current writing project that takes on a heavy topic (self-care) in a light way (semi-southern humor), but also on an introspective, personal level. Today is February 24, 2020. In 500 days, I will turn 50. Coincidentally, today is also my first crush's 50th birthday, and I remember this because I am Rainman when it comes to birthdays. But the birthday memoir is another project-in-process, and I digress. Back to burnout.
In Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls
, David Sedaris recalls a friend who used a four-burner stove as a metaphor for success. As the friend explained it, the burners represent health, work, family and friends. To be successful, the friend's theory goes, you must turn off one burner. To be really
successful, you have to turn off two. And then of course that kicks off the larger discussion: which burner(s) do you turn off? Why? Or do you choose "none" and rethink your idea of what success looks like?
I like this analogy if you're talking about having a limited amount of fuel and where you need to direct it. In other words, you only have so much energy at any given time. Like the stove, you only have a certain amount of physical, mental, and emotional resources, which means you must choose how and where to use them. Obviously, if only two burners are firing, they will be hotter, cook your food faster, and give out more heat. The two-burner solution is not without risk: you might get scorched by a too-high flame, and the intensity may cause the fire to burn out quickly.
Similarly, there's only 24 hours in each day, and let's face it, there is no way that every item on your To Do list is going to be completed perfectly – or sometimes at all. Not everything can be a top priority, and trying to do Every Damn Thing All The Damn Time is just a one-way ticket to burnout, quitting, or worse, failure. Sure, the stove analogy nicely frames the question of how to achieve success, but I prefer the analogy of the three-legged stool as a means of balance, not burnout. I prefer this not only because I was clever enough to come up with it myself, but because it's unrealistic to limit priorities to only two or maybe three. Also, I like furniture.
Picture a simple, wooden, 3-legged step stool, like something you remember from your grandma's house. It's unadorned, functional, sturdy, and even. It probably shows some wear-and-tear, but all three legs bear equal amounts of weight. The stool is a streamlined seat – it's not a cozy sofa or a recliner. It's not supposed to be comfortable, it's functional. The "Three-Legged Stool" is your life stripped down and divided into just three areas, because that's where you must focus your limited time and resources.
Each leg represents a current priority that requires equal attention, but you have to figure out what your "Three Legs" are. Maybe they're a combination of family, career, faith, sobriety, home, friends, health, hobbies, pets, or service. Maybe something else. Maybe you're struggling with loss, trying to make a major life change, or you're moving across the country. The Three Legs will be different for every person, and the priorities will probably rotate because there will be times when work is #1 and times when personal health doesn't make the cut.
After a certain time, you'll shift into a more comfortable zone, and you'll add a fourth leg and maybe you can morph the analogy from a Three-Legged Stool to a chair, a recliner, or maybe even a sofa! But until then, streamlining helps find focus when you're being pulled in multiple directions or juggling too many responsibilities and you feel like everything is half-assed because there simply isn't enough time and you don't have enough energy. I think it's important to acknowledge when you're in minimalist mode and to recognize when others are as well. Maybe you don't feel so guilty for saying no to an invitation and you don't take it personally when a friend needs to focus his limited energy on work, family, and sobriety. (Obviously when I say "you," I mean "me.")
The Three-Legged Stool is not exactly the piece of furniture that you want to build your living room or your life around. It serves a purpose and we recognize it for what it is – it's basic, it's balanced, and it offers solid support. And let's face it. The Three-Legged Stool analogy is not exactly revolutionary. You can find countless ways that it's used to describe leadership, business, investments, teamwork or just about anything else. Yeah, it's on the cusp of being stale. But for now, for me, it helps organize my priorities and it keeps the internal crazy talk at bay (at least for a while).
I feel like I should find a clever way to tie David Sedaris's stove analogy back to the Three-Legged Stool to make this feel less like a corporate PowerPoint presentation given by a public relations consultant from the 1980s. But I'll leave that for another day. Right now, I need to focus on my three things.