Some ten years ago, when writing The Life Organizer, I stumbled upon a super useful metaphor for organizing your life that has since rocked my world and tens of thousands of other people’s worlds, too.
You start with a stove. A plain, simple four burner stove.
Not a six burner Wolf Range or a professional commercial kitchen stove.
Four burners only.
And on those four burners you place four pots.
And those four pots are a metaphor for areas of your life or specific projects that will get the majority of your time, resources and attention for a period of time. I decide my pots on Sunday for the coming week. But some people like to do it every evening and some by the academic semester or for the weekend or for a month… you get to decide.
And all those other pots on your stove? The ones that keep boiling over or the ones you haven’t looked at in so long? You either make them one of the four or you cover them with a well-fitting lid and set them aside… for now.
What are some of the examples of the kinds of pots you could have on your stove? Here are some from students and clients:
- Teaching, getting 90 pages ready to send, house care, and staying healthy.
- Finishing a book proposal, creating one module of content for my course, CrossFit class and having a difficult conversation with my sister.
- Networking in person (twice!), meal planning and shopping, finishing two paintings, finishing clutter clearing of dining room table.
- My current “pots” are writing my memoir, creating the Get Scary S**t Done course, running / training and political action.
Of course, there are questions that come up when I propose the “four pot” metaphor for focusing your life. Here are a few of the more common ones:
Can I have more than four pots?
I’m not the pot police (ha). Some people like six pots, some people find they only want two or three. One student decided that she wanted a camp stove with two burners because she loves how simple life is when she’s camping. Another woman came up with the metaphor of four cauldrons over an open fire.
The important idea here is to create well-defined containers that help you prioritize during a time period and, even more importantly, what you will pause, set aside, say no to – the pots you take off your stove. One of the biggest things that keeps people from getting into, and staying in, action is not choosing!
Bottom line: if you have too many pots, you aren’t really choosing and you can’t truly focus and the metaphor ceases to be useful.
What do I do about ordinary stuff like my marriage, my kids, house work? Do those things get their own pot?
This is a metaphor more than an ironclad productivity system (which I rebel against and thus had to make up something more poetic) so there isn’t a right way to do this. What I find is that some ordinary stuff simply just gets done without me thinking much about it so I don’t give that stuff a pot. Cleaning the kitchen, walking the dogs, talking to my kids… it naturally happens. BUT when something changes or needs more attention – like changing my diet or realizing my marriage needs some loving up – then I move what might just “happen” (eating, reconnecting with Bob, etc.) into a pot so the time and extra attention is allowed, and something else is canceled or postponed.
Bottom line: if something in your life needs extra time and attention or the majority of your time, it needs its own pot. And then other pots have to go away. For now.
How many things can go in a pot at a time?
You’ll find different ways to measure your pot’s “ingredients.” I like to put in a specific amount of time or pages or miles because it helps me be honest with myself. So, my running pot might have 25 miles one week, 15 miles the next. My memoir pot might have 5 hours one week and “finish chapter 17” the next, depending on what helps me make progress. One student likes to put one major to-do in each pot and then decide each day what action she will take that day. Another woman asks herself every morning while journaling, “How will I stir my pots today?”
Bottom line: You decide what goes in each pot and how it “cooks.” Anything works as long as you are choosing and minding your pots and not blindly adding more pots to your stove without noticing.
I hate to choose between my projects and you can’t make me!
I know, I hear you! Any kind of choosing can be pissing-making. I hear from so many of you that have so many wonderful interests and how much you despise being told to choose just one. But hey, notice there are four pots, not just one and notice that you can take pots off and add new pots as you choose. This is a crucial distinction.
This is a fluid but focused metaphor that gives you choice while helping you choose. You know that never choosing doesn’t work nor does always starting over before you finish something (however you define finishing.) This approach allows you to move forward with freedom and truthfulness.
How does having only four pots help me with my fear?
Fear loves to distract you. Fear does it so well that you often don’t even realize it is fear behind your sudden desire to start a completely new project or spend the day puttering and never get to your work or say yes to a big volunteer assignment that immediately takes over your life. When you decide to commit to just four pots, it gives you a pausing point that can alert you to fear’s antics.
It can look like this:
Does this new project fit in one of my existing pots?
If not, which pot will I have to take off to add this new one?
Is that okay with me?
If I add a fifth or sixth pot, what will be the cost to the other pots?
It’s a simple way to stay awake!
The pot metaphor also creates a finite shape for your desires to be poured into.
Fear thrives on a lack of boundaries and the unknown to increase its influence. You intellectually know that everything in life is uncertain and that is a vital truth to work within your spiritual practice but during the course of your day, it’s incredibly helpful to set limits, parameters, a “there-there” around what you will – and won’t – do. In fact it can be life saving (or so I’ve been told by many students and clients.) It can teach you how to work effectively. So many of us never learned how to work – especially to do our creative work – in a sustainable and enjoyable way. Limits like the four pot metaphor can help!
Finally, the four (or more or less) pots screen out the noise of trying to do and be everything to everybody – you know these are your pots for now — that is what is most important and what you can handle — and in a day or a week, you will reconsider what pots to add and subtract, if necessary. That means that all the other ideas, concerns, projects, possibilities… know that they will get a turn but for right now they can rest quietly and leave you in peace to get some work done.
How to make the four pots work for you?
Name all the pots that are currently on your stove. You can decide whether some are big old giant soup pots and others are tiny sauce pots but name the pots. Do not be surprised if you have a lot (!) more than four.
Next, sit with your pots. What’s the reality of having all these pots on your stove at the same time? Don’t judge yourself; do be lovingly honest. Do some pots get all burnt on the bottom from lack of attention? Do other pots boil over? Are some pots so neglected they’ve curdled? You forget they were even there?
- Which pots do I really and truly want to be tending this week? (Or if that is too much, this day?)
- Which pots this week (or day) need to be tended so other future pots can cook well?
- What pots need to come off the stove for now?
- What pots can I give someone else to tend?
Remember you are choosing for a week or a day. It’s flexible. Nothing is written in stone. Nobody will die if you change your mind!
AND OF COURSE
Doing this sort of pot tending can cause anxiety and mind noise and fear to rise up. That is normal because when you choose to focus your life, you are declaring, “What I want to create! How I want to live matters!”
You are also embracing your human scaled life, your limits. You are declaring you can’t do it all and be all to everybody. As strange as that may seem, this actually makes fear more bonkers. Fear prefers you to hang out in limitless possibilities reciting beautiful affirmations because then you don’t actually take action. Thus, fear can keep you in a teeny tiny box, albeit one decorated with the best of intentions and vision boards, defended and safe, and very very small.
But you know the truth: the life you want is always just one choice and one action away.
Thanks for your time and your courage.