Four burners theory: The philosophy that helps Emma Isaacs juggle being a CEO and mum-of-five.

emma isaacs

Emma Isaacs is the founder of Business Chicks, Australia’s largest community for women. The following is an extract from new book Winging It, available in all good book stores now.

There’s an idea called the four burners theory, where you imagine your life as a four-burner stove. Each burner represents friends, family, health and work. It’s been said that if you want to be successful, you have to turn off at least one of your burners. And if you want to be super-successful, you need to turn off at least two.

For the past few years, my work and family burners have been turned up to the point you’d experience third-degree burns if you got close. My friends and health burners are simmering, if not completely turned off.

My health burner used to run hot. I had a personal trainer five mornings a week, squeezed in a few yoga and aerobics classes, played on the work netball team and consulted with a reiki master and a kinesiologist.

These days, I’m lucky to make a quick green smoothie each morning and occasionally I’ll lift the odd kettle bell (usually when I trip over it in the wardrobe and am reminded it’s there). I turn down most social engagements, choosing instead a small handful of friends who understand I’m not a Saturday-morning-long-brunch-and-coffee friend anymore, but more a ten-minute-quality-conversation-on-the-fly-between-meetings-in-the-back-of-an-Uber kind of friend.

Because my work and family burners are turned up so high, I find that what works at the moment is to be gentle with myself. I focus on my mental health over my physical health. I prioritise how I’m feeling, how I manage stress, and my mindset. I also know that where I’m at right now is just a moment in time and I’ll be able to turn those other burners back up soon enough.

And that’s my brand of doing it all right there – I don’t. I do work and family really well, have a bunch of forgiving friends, and take the stairs when I can.

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My advice on doing work and family well.

I feel lucky that I started my entrepreneurial journey very early on. Before I became a mum, I’d already collected a bunch of useful skills from business that became helpful in parenting. When it comes to running my household and my business, the same rules apply. Get good people around you. Have fun. Watch your body language, and watch your mood too. Move fast when required, and slow when needed. Create a fun environment. Stay calm. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

And perhaps most importantly, get organised. In a way, having five children was a game I challenged myself with. It costs a bucketload to provide for them, educate them, travel with them (you can imagine when we fly anywhere how much the seven plane tickets cost), and we always need a minimum of two hotel rooms when we go on holidays. I knew that having a big family would be expensive so I’d either have to learn how to play big or simply not get ahead.

DO. If you’re serious about getting ahead in your career and being a great parent, separate your two roles as much as possible. When you’re busy being a parent, do that well. When you’re working, work. Working from home has never really worked for me, as I’d always find something that would take me away from focusing on what I need to get done, so it’s something I’ve tried to avoid.

DO. Work really hard on your relationships with the people who help care for your kids. Over the years we’ve been so lucky to have people in our family who adore our kids as much as we do. These carers (whether they’re at the local preschool or working as a nanny in our home) are family to us. We try to be as kind and generous as we can, always thanking them and looking for ways to show our appreciation – it may just be an unexpected gift voucher to a movie or spoiling them on their birthdays, but it’s so important to acknowledge the work they do.

Emma Isaac's new book, 'Winging It'.
Image: Supplied.

DON’T. Try to do it all at once. Having five kids has made Row and me experts in dividing and conquering. He’ll take three and go do an activity, and I’ll have the other two doing something else. We’ve always just found this easier. I’ll never forget one time we were all catching a plane together. As we were clearing security, the kids collected their bags off the conveyer belt and pretty much went in four different directions while I was trying to manage the baby. I looked at Row and said, ‘See, I told you we’d have been better splitting up and taking a couple each!’

DO. Create opportunities for one-on-one time with your children. I do this all the time – taking them out for lunch on the weekends or after school on their own can go a long way to fill up their emotional cup. Sometimes, I grab one of them and take them to a hotel for the night, where we watch a movie that they choose, or read books, or just snuggle and talk a lot. It need not be a hotel, either – sometimes, if the hours in the day run out, I’ll sneak one of them into our bed and they’ll spend the night there with us.

DON’T. Apologise for your ultra-organisation. Come to my place in the evenings, after the kids’ bedtime, and you’re going to find four lunch boxes lined up for the kids who go to daycare/school on the kitchen bench in age order. You’re going to find a chopping board in the same place every night, ready for prep the next day, four cups on the breakfast table ready to be filled with water the next morning, half the lunch boxes already filled with non-perishables, water bottles ready to go, schoolbags lined up on their hooks just outside the kitchen (again, in age order) and so it goes. The systems set you free (and give you time to manage the stuff you can’t control or predict – hello, sibling arguments).

DO. Be present. A skill I’ve tried to master is really being present wherever I am, and doing what matters. I don’t have the hours available to me that I used to have, so when I’m in the office, I try to spend time in the ‘important and not urgent’ quadrant. When I’m at home, I’m doing the stuff that matters too – being present with the kids, cuddling them, reading to them, listening (really listening) to them, and I try to let everything else fade into the background. I fail regularly, but the goal is to always be working when I’m working and parenting when I’m parenting.

DO. Always have something to look forward to as a family. The monotony and routine of day-to-day family life can feel like there’s just no end in sight. You feel as though you’re in an endless cycle of managing disagreements, missing out on sleep, making meals that only get half-eaten, tidying up, and getting zero time for yourself. We always try to have something in the calendar that we’re looking forward to, usually a family holiday or another big event. We count down the days together and it helps remind us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

DO. Understand how you get your energy. Energy is probably the most critical superpower to harness in parenting (and business. And life, really!). When you have energy and you’re in the right headspace, dealing with a toddler tantrum is bearable. When you’re running on empty, it feels like an insurmountable mountain to climb. I know that I get my energy from being alone. Sometimes, all I need is half an hour to be away from every human in the world. I’ll turn to Row and say, ‘Please just take them all in the car and drive around for a little while!’ The minute they’re piled into the car and the door closes, I’ll make a coffee (or if it’s really bad and an appropriate time in the day, a glass of wine) or get in the shower or even just sit on the edge of my bed and stare out the window. By the time they come back, I love them all again. You may not be an introvert like me and recharge by being alone. You are probably one of those cool people who recharge your batteries by being around others. The point is: know how you get energy and make sure you allow time to get more of it.

DON’T. Ever begrudge your partner time out. I love it when Row goes away, even for just a day or two, and he is the same with me. While it can be tricky managing on your own, it allows your partner to do what they love and gives them the space to miss you all too. And having at least one re-energised parent in the house is always better than two exhausted ones!

DO. Find family rituals. We love taking our bikes down to the beach and riding along the boardwalk. And Friday night dinner is also a must.

DO. Buy in bulk, or at least buy two of everything. When I buy nappies, I buy stacks. There’s no running out in my house, ever. Same goes for baby wipes and soap and toilet paper. And everything else basically. All of this is not to say I’m flippant with waste, because I’m not. I recycle everything and work hard to keep packaging down and do my best to tread lightly, but if you want to make life easier, at all costs avoid having to go to the shops because you’ve run out of something.

DO. Set up stations all over the place. When I buy a hairbrush for the kids, I buy two. Same goes for hair detangler spray and hair elastics. I buy three pairs of scissors at a time, and have all these things stationed all over the house – in the bathroom, in our bedroom, in the kitchen . . . The name of the game is to be able to get your hands on things as quickly as possible and never waste a minute more on looking for stuff than you have to.

DON’T. Be a hoarder. I try to live as simply and lightly as possible and make sure our home is not cluttered. I don’t buy a lot of new stuff for the kids either. That’s what grandparents are for. I’ll regularly do clean outs of the kids’ clothes and toys and donate everything to charities. Also, make sure you have heaps of storage to hide the clutter.

DO. Buy everything online. It’s safe to say I’d be one of Amazon’s best customers. There’s not much I don’t buy online. If a birthday invitation comes home in a schoolbag one day, I’m online that night sorting the gift out.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know life is easier because we don’t sweat the small stuff. We’re very chilled with how things run in our house. We’ll often dance on tables, have food fights, eat ice cream when we’re not meant to and just let our kids be kids. I’m strict on some stuff (no screens during the week, for example), but 95 per cent of the time our kids are free range, and life’s as fun as we can make it.

This is an extract from Winging It by Emma Isaacs. Available now, Macmillan Australia, RRP $34.99.

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