Emotional wellbeing versus practical work

For mental health, like athletes, we need to perform a dance with life. Photo by Aditya Ali on Unsplash

Many of us have a dilemma.  On the one hand, we want to be well.  And on the other hand, we want to get things done.

Sometimes, those two wishes seem to work against each other.  ‘If the world just stopped for a moment,’ we say, ‘I could get myself in a fit state to carry on.’  The trouble is, when we are tempted to stop the world for a while, we become afraid of things not getting done.  ‘If I could just get everything done,’ we say, ‘then I would have time to stop and get myself well.’

We are living with two contradictory beliefs:

  1. I need to stop practical work until I have tended to my emotional wellbeing
  2. I need to stop tending to my emotional wellbeing until I have done the practical work

Athletes are very familiar with this dilemma, and they have a way of dealing with the apparent contradiction.

Athletes notice that we need to perform a kind of dance with life.

This is how it works.


Imagine a bad athlete learning to do long-distance running.  She starts to run, without preparation, and within 5 minutes she is exhausted.  Her whole body is telling her to stop.  So she does.  Then she spends three days telling everyone how difficult that 5 minutes of running was.  She waits a while.  Then she tries again, and gets the same experience, becoming exhausted after 5 minutes.  And so on.

What is the main problem with the ‘bad athlete’?  Actually it’s two related problems.  Firstly, she lacks the ability to learn from her experience.  And secondly, she lacks the ability to stand back and make a new creative synthesis from the situation.  She simply repeats the mistake.


A good athlete knows that active time and recovery time are part of the same schedule.

A good athlete feeds on the research and experience of other athletes and sports scientists.  She creates a weekly timetable that balances activity and rest.  She also divides the activity into 3 types: speed, endurance and conditioning.

Speed work enhances the ability to work intensely for short period of time.  Endurance work enhances the ability to keep going, albeit slowly, for longer period of time.  And conditioning work enhances the body’s inner processes, improving their coordination, timing and balance, so that work can be done as second nature.


To become good ‘mental athletes’, we need to incorporate into our week those three types of activity.

  1. Mental speed work – we need a few periods of intense work, where we try to work quickly.  This refreshes our ability to keep up when necessary.
  2. Endurance work – we need a lot of steady time spent rather doggedly applying ourselves.  Relationships, jobs, house maintenance – all these things are mostly a matter of persistence, at a pace that’s manageable without overload.
  3. Conditioning work – we also need some self-care routines, to keep our minds and bodies clean, clear and balanced.  This could be yoga, meditation, puzzles, therapy – whatever brief activities help us to stay ‘in tune’.

And in between the activities, we can rest and repair.  This means removing ourselves from sources of stress and pressure, and letting the world drop for a while.

Sculpting a good weekly timetable is very helpful. It stops us being a ‘bad athlete’, and helps us to be a ‘good athlete’, managing our mental health.


  • Examples of mental speed work – writing to a deadline; preparing for a meeting; completing work in a restricted time
  • Examples of mental endurance work – long activities, over several hours, such as steady gardening; day-to-day interacting with long-standing friends; maintaining and improving accommodation; research and writing of longer pieces; slow and steady tidying up of physical items or data
  • Examples of conditioning work – yoga, meditation, playing music, cuddling, sexual activity, interesting conversations
  • Examples of rest and repair – sleep, watching TV, just chilling in company, wandering aimlessly