What Does "Burn the Candle at Both Ends" Mean?

Malcolm Tatum

To burn the candle at both ends is an expression that implies that an individual is attempting to live at a pace that places a great deal of strain on his or her physical and emotional resources. The fear associated with this type of activity has to do with the fact that burning the candle at both ends implies that the individual is rapidly using up those resources without taking the time to replenish them. As a result, there is some concern that this type of activity will eventually result in collapse and possibly permanent damage from which the individual will never fully recover.

Burning the candle at both ends can lead to burnout.
Burning the candle at both ends can lead to burnout.

This particular English saying is often traced back to the early years of the 18th century, and had to do with waste. Choosing to burn the candle at both ends as a means of generating more light right now would in fact produce a short-term effect that many would find desirable. At the same time, this choice to burn both ends of the candle simultaneously would also mean the candle was consumed faster, ultimately leaving the user in darkness. Typically, choosing to burn the candle at both ends was considered a wasteful and short-lived effort that ultimately left an individual with no way to enjoy light once the sun had set at the end of the day.


Today, choosing to burn the candle at both ends still implies making unwise use of limited resources, while not taking the time to renew those resources. For example, an individual who is employed full-time and chooses to go out every night after work until the early hours of the morning may be having a wonderful time, but fails to get the rest that the mind and body needs in order to function at optimum levels. Over time, this type of behavior can have an adverse effect on job performance as well as create some issues with family members and others in the social circle. At some point, the individual reaches a state of being physically and emotionally exhausted, and cannot continue to function without making some lifestyle changes. By choosing to burn the candle at both ends, the individual has a great deal of fun in the short-term, but ultimately pays a price in the form of being unable to maintain work and business relationships.

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By choosing not to burn the candle at both ends, an individual can still enjoy work and recreational activities that provide pleasure, while avoiding the possibility of burnout and damaging relationships. Deciding to set limits on entertainment after work, such as confining attendance at parties or similar events to a few times each week, getting adequate rest, and taking the time for consuming nutritional meals makes it possible to maintain good physical and mental health while still enjoying life. This more balanced approach to living will also increase the chances of making the most of work and relationships for many more years.

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Discussion Comments


Another one of our delightful English idioms that has a strikingly appropriate meaning. It's worthy of Shakespeare himself.

It's along the same lines as "burning the midnight oil," which usually means working very hard, with some risk of exhaustion.

Thrill seekers are often said to burn the candle at both ends, since they are taking risks (like burning one's fingers if one is holding the candle too long)!

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