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All work and no play? The art of rebalancing your life

Kid playing in sprinkle water.
Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

Hi, and welcome to the seventh week of the Mindfulness Program!

This week, we’ll explore ways to nourish ourselves when we’re under a lot of stress and pressure. (Hello Christmas.)

All exercises and meditations are from the book Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

Let’s dive in!

Overview: Week 7 Mindfulness

Week Seven explores the close connection between our daily routines, activities, behaviour and moods. When we are stressed and exhausted, we often give up the things that “nourish” us. We try to clear the decks.

This week, you’ll learn how to make more skilful choices in your life. You will practice to do more of the things that nourish you. As a result, you limit the downsides of those things that drain your inner resources.

Main idea: Rebalancing your life

Some activities are more than just relaxing or enjoyable. They nourish us at a far deeper level too. They help us build up resilience to life’s daily stresses and strains.

Other activities deplete us. They drain away our energy, making us weaker and more vulnerable to the dips in life’s rollercoaster ride.

They also eat away at our capacity to enjoy life fully. Very quickly, these depleting activities can begin taking over our lives.

When we are under pressure, the things that nourish us are gradually abandoned, almost without notice. In psychology, this effect is called the recovery paradox.

And the lack of recovery, when we need it the most, is driving us into the exhaustion funnel.

Exhaustion Funnel – Professor Marie Åsberg of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm
The Exhaustion Funnel – Professor Marie Åsberg of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm

Exercise: Take stock of what you do

How much of your life is devoted to activities that nourish you and how much to those that deplete you? Take this little test to find out!

First, mentally run through the different activities that you do in a typical day. Feel free to close your eyes for a few moments to help bring these to mind. What sort of things do you find yourself doing on a typical evening or weekend?

Now, write it all down. List maybe 10 or 15 activities of a typical day in a column on the left-hand side of your page.

Activities you do in a typical dayN/D
Meditating in the morning N
Going for a lunch walkN
Talking with a friend on the phoneN
Writing an essayN/D
Answering emails and phone callsD
Attending meetingsD
Researching a job assignmentD
Working out at the gymN
Watching televisionN
Sleeping N
An example of nourishing and depleting activities in a day.

When you have a list in front of you, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Which of these activities nourish you? What lifts your mood, energises you, and makes you feel calm and centred? What increases your sense of actually being alive and present, rather than merely existing? These are nourishing activities.
  2. Which of these activities deplete you? What pulls you down, drains away your energy, makes you feel tense and fragmented? What decreases your sense of actually being alive and present? What makes you feel that you are merely existing, or worse? These are depleting activities.

Put an N for Nourishing and a D for depleting on the right-hand side of each activity.

If an activity is both, put down your first reaction, and if you can’t choose, put N/D or D/N. You may want to say “It depends”. If that’s the case, it can be useful to notice what it depends on.

Tips on rebalancing your life

The exercise gives you an idea of the balance in your life. You see which activities nourish you and what things deplete your precious resources.

The balance does not have to be perfect. For instance, one nourishing activity that you love doing might easily outweigh any number of depleting ones.

However, it’s wise to have at least a handful of nourishing activities to balance the depleting ones. You may want to try:

  • Taking a long bath or shower
  • Reading a book
  • Going for a brisk walk
  • Indulging in your favourite hobby

The old saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” contains more than a grain of truth. In some cultures, doctors don’t ask, “When did you start to feel depressed?” but “When did you stop dancing?”

– Mark Williams

Learning to dance again

You first become aware of how much of your life is devoted to depleting activities. This wake-up call can be difficult to accept. Second, you need to take action to spend less time doing them. You need to shift your priorities by spending more time on the things that nourish you.

Rebalancing your life is possible, although it may not seem that way at the beginning. You learn to dance again by making new choices.

Which nourishing activity will you carry out in the following week?

A word of encouragement

People give a lot of reasons for not rebalancing their lives. According to research, here are a few of the most common ones:

  • There are things in life I don’t have a choice over, like going to work.
  • If I don’t keep up, I fall behind.
  • It’s shameful to show weakness at work.
  • I wasn’t raised to take time for myself.
  • I can only do something that I enjoy once my obligations to others, my work, have been completely satisfied.
  • I have so many caring responsibilities. It would be wrong to put myself first.

Did any of these reasons (and countless others like them) resonate with you? Then perhaps you’re in a position to see how many of them depend on old habits of black-and-white thinking.

For instance, I sometimes fall into the trap of telling myself that “looking after myself is selfish”. When I recognise this thought, I tell myself that “Looking after myself is healthy”.

Spend a few minutes reflecting on how you can begin to redress the balance from the exercise you did earlier.

Perhaps you can do this together with a friend, family member or a trusted work colleague? Rebalancing your life takes work, and it’s something you don’t have to do by yourself.

Practices for Week 7: Meditation

Mindfulness mediations: All tracks on Soundcloud.

This week, you choose two meditations that you want to practice for rebalancing your life.

Choose one of the meditations because they give you some appreciable nourishing benefits. (The 3-minute breathing space and the body scan are two go-to meditations for me.)

Choose the other because you felt that you didn’t fully get to grips with it the first time around.

Devote about 20 to 30 minutes to the two combined meditations. You could carry them out in sequence, or do them at different times of the day.

The order in which you do the two meditations isn’t important. It might be worth setting up a playlist for the two meditations on your phone or computer for easy access.

Write down the two meditations you plan to do. You can mull this decision over for a while if you wish. Feel free to reply to one of my emails if you want some input from me.

The three-minute Breathing Space meditation twice a day at set times and when needed.


Tiny actions can change your relationship with the world for the better.

Everyday life offers endless opportunities for you to stop, focus, and be present in what is happening right now.

Which nourishing activities will you do in the coming week? Looking at your daily activities, how do you wish to rebalance your life? I’ll be taking walks around the lake and spending time with friends and family. Let me know how you’re doing, or just say hello.

Have a great, nourishing week and end-of-year!

Thanks for reading.

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