The Four Horsemen Principle: The Dark Side of Work-Life Balance

One way to think about work-life balance issues is with a concept known as The Four Horseman Principle. Here’s how it was first taught to me:

Pretend that your life is made up of four horseman. Each horseman represents one major part of your life:

  1. Work
  2. Health
  3. Family
  4. Friends

The Four Horsemen Principle says that “to be successful, you have to cut out one of your horsemen. To be really successful, you have to cut out two.”


Three Perspectives of the Four Horsemen

My initial response to The Four Horseman Principle was to find a way to beat it.

“Can I succeed and keep all four horsemen?” I pondered.

Maybe I could fuse two horsemen. “What if I made family and friends into one category?”

Perhaps I could fuse health and work. “I hear sitting all day is bad for you. What if I got a standing desk?” Now, I know what you’re thinking. Believing that you will be healthy because you bought a standing desk is like believing you are a smart because you bought a book and left it on a shelf.

Quickly, I realized I was inventing these “life hacks” because I didn’t want to face the real problem: life is filled with compromises. If you want to excel in your work and social life, your health and family life will decline. If you want to fit and a great parent, then you may be forced to kill your career potential. But, you are free to choose which four horsemen you want, but you have to realize that you will never reach your potential for all of them.

Basically, we’re forced to chose. Would you rather live that is great in one area but sucks in another? Or would you rather be so-so in all areas of your life, but never reach your potential?

What is best way to solve these work-life balance hurdles? I’m not saying I have it solved, but here are three ways to tackle The Four Horseman Principle:

Factor 1: Outsource, Outsource, Outsource

We outsource small parts of our problems already. We buy pre-made food so we don’t have to make it. We pay to have our grass cut to save time. We get our oil changed so we don’t have to learn ourselves.

Outsourcing bits of your life lets you buy back time and use it better. Can you use the same concept on a horseman and use that extra time to better the other horseman?

Career is a great example. For a lot of us, your career is the biggest horseman. It’s where we spend the most time and it’s the last horseman to get ignored. In theory, anyone can outsource parts of the career horseman. He does this by hiring others.

Tim Ferriss is one of many CEO’s who built systems that let him live a 4 hour work week. He outsourced the replaceable work of his business while still making the money.

Family is another example. Working mothers are often forced to outsource the family horseman by paying for a nanny. Calling it “outsourcing” might sound too corporate, but -like the Career example- parents are essentially paying someone else to manage a horseman to free up their time elsewhere.

The benefit of outsourcing is you keep a horseman alive without using your time. But, removing yourself completely is a downside. Most people will end up feeling bored and without purpose after sitting on a beach all day with nothing to do. Almost every parent I know will choose spending time with their child over letting a nanny do it.

Outsourcing keeps horsemen alive, but is it solving all your problems?

Factor 2: Acknowledge Limits

One of the toughest parts of The Four Horsemen Principle is that it reminds you of your untapped potential. It can be easy to realize, “If only I had more time, I could get rich or get jacked or spend more time with Sally.”

One way to tackle this issue is to change your focus from wishing you had more time to optimizing the time you have. In other words, acknowledge your constraints. The question to ask yourself is, “Assuming a particular set of time limits, how can I be as efficient as possible?”

For instance:

  • Assuming I can only work 8 hours a day, how can I make the most money possible?
  • Assuming I can only exercise for 30 minutes a day, how can I push more to exhaust my muscles?
  • Assuming I can only spend 1 hour a week with friends, how can I make it the best experience?

This type of questioning pulls your focus towards something positive (getting everything you can out of all you’ve got) rather than something negative (worrying about not having time). Also, [internal link here]

Of course, there are downsides also. Embracing limits means accepting you are operating less than you potentially can. Yes, there are plenty of ways to “work smarter, not harder” but it is difficult to avoid the fact that where you spend your time matters. If you put more time into your fitness or your family, you will likely see improved benefits in that area.

Factor 3: Have Different Seasons

A third way to conquer the four horsemen is by breaking your time into seasons. What if, instead of chasing a perfect work-life balance at all times, you divided your life into seasons that focused on a particular horseman?

The importance of your horsemen may change throughout life. When you are in your 20s or 30s, it can be easier to work out and develop your career. The health and career horsemen are galloping. A decade later, you might have a baby and suddenly, the fitness horseman slows down while your family horseman starts sprinting. Another decade passes and you visit old friends you put off.

You don’t have to give up on your dreams, but life rarely allows you to keep all four horsemen trotting at once. Maybe you need to let go of something for this season. You can do it all in a lifetime, but not at the same damn time. [link here] — [quote]

For the last five years, I have been riding the career horseman. I focused on my future earning power, but it came with costs. I pushed my social/personal life horseman away and my fitness horseman was barely moving.

What season are you in right now?

Work-Life Balance: Which Horseman Should You Kill?

The Four Horseman Principle shows a balancing act that everyone must juggle: everybody wants to succeed at everything, but everyone has limits on their time and energy. Every choice has its cost.

Which horseman will you kill?

Note: this entire piece was written based on James Clear’s four burners theory article for writing skill development reasons. There are critical points which I disagree with written in this article and his article and I will write a post giving my view on this in the future if I have time (with examples from successful billionaires and millionaires to prove it, ranging from Sandberg to Vaynerchuk).