You Can Have It All: How to Use the Backburner Method for Personal Growth

This is Part 1 in a 3-part series on productivity. Part 2

Our lives are oversaturated with choices: what to eat, wear, buy, watch, and how to spend our time.  When it comes to figuring out how to improve ourselves--how to be slimmer, healthier, more compassionate, more productive--we are faced with information overload.

How many times have you heard the self-help advice “change one thing at a time”? And how often have you followed that advice? If you’re like me, you don’t want to change just one thing. Let's say on an average day, you roll out of bed at the last minute and rush to get ready. But you want a new morning routine. You want to meditate, go for a run, answer some emails, and write in your journal all before breakfast. You want to start saving for a trip to Spain...but you also want to save for a new outfit...and you want to go to a concert this weekend. While you’re at it, you want to quit smoking, zero your inbox, and learn Spanish--because you’re going on a trip to Spain, remember?

Put on the brakes.

I have some bad news: you’ve heard “just do one thing” so many times because it’s sound advice. I also have good news. I can teach you how you can have all of those things. Let’s start with a metaphor. If you’re cooking a complex meal, and you’ve got four burners going and cookies in the oven, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to burn dinner. (Or worse, the cookies.)

Enter the "backburner method." Get Burner #1 going, turn a burner on the back to simmer, and set it there. Get Burner #2 going. Keep an eye on Burner #1. Burner #2 goes on the other backburner. When it comes time to get Burner #3 going, we’ve got a bit of a juggling act going. Maybe Burner #1 needs some attention. Maybe Burner #2, or both. When you get everything settled, you can add another burner. Oh, and when all four are simmering nicely, put those cookies in the oven, it’s had some time to heat up.

You can pull the same tricks with your habits. Let’s say our burners are:

  1. Physical wellness: training/activities, nutrition, sleep

  2. Mental wellness: meditation, journaling, stress relief

  3. Relationships: family, friends, dating/marriage, work, school

  4. Career: work production, research, personal finances

  5. And let’s call our cookie sheet Hobbies: playing an instrument, learning a language, playing a sport, making crafts, etc.

Here’s the hard part. You’ve got to pick only one burner to start. A few years ago, my Burner #1 was physical wellness. I got a training and nutrition plan from a coach, and I set out to work. But first I broke it down into even smaller pieces. I decided to focus on training. I made sure I got to the gym three times a week no matter what. And for months, I didn’t miss a workout. Sometimes my diet was on, sometimes it wasn’t, but I was always able to feel good about the fact that I stuck to my training plan. If the rest of my metaphorical kitchen was up in flames, I was still going to have dinner.

Now I hardly even think about going to the gym. It’s just one of my rituals. It’s on a backburner. If I skip a few days because other areas of my life are getting hectic, I even miss it. But the only reason I was able to put it there is because I made it my primary focus for a block of time. Because it has become a habit, I can devote my attention and my willpower to other things.

Pick your one thing now. And send me an email if you need some help. I see cookies in your future.