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PACING: It May Not Always Look The Way You Think It Would

Aug 3, 2023

By Anne-Marie Sylvester

In any endeavor that requires sustained effort, whether it be completing a marathon, tackling a big work project, or navigating life’s challenges, effective pacing plays a crucial role. This is certainly the case when it comes to navigating a recovery from an injury or learning to navigate the day-to-day with a chronic condition.

One way to conceptualize pacing is by thinking of it as a skill you acquire and practice. Like with most skills, it takes time and we likely are to struggle with it at first. Pacing is not just about the speed at which you do things, it is about knowing your limitations, how to listen to your body accurately, and using these factors to help you distribute your resources in the best way possible. It can promote effective healing, preserve our resources for our priorities, can help us avoid burnout and help us avoid further amplifying physical symptoms. Therefore, it can be quite nuanced at times and is not necessarily intuitive or easy! I’ll invite anyone who is having a hard time with pacing to be kind with themselves during this process.

There are many ways to conceptualize pacing, such as viewing our physical resources within the framework of a points system, or viewing our resources as represented by the amount of “gas in our gas tank”.

Both of these analogies invite us to consider that, when living with a chronic condition or recovering from an injury, we do not have the luxury of having an unlimited amount of physical resources to work with. Therefore, we only have so much “gas in our tank” which never feels full, or we only have so many “points” in a day to use as currency for activities that require points to engage in. Once we recognize that we only have so many points to work with, or so much gas in our tank, then we are able to decide what we want to prioritize and use our gas or points for! Acceptance can be a challenging but key component to this process.

Although pacing can naturally prompt a scarcity mindset at times, it can sometimes involve adding things to our day as well. There are activities that can help “fuel” our tank or give us a few extra points to work with that day. Perhaps giving ourselves permission to actually take a nap when we notice that we’re running low on resources, or making sure that we build in multiple small breaks to go outside and breathe some fresh air or add in regulation strategies that can help keep as close to our baseline as we can. These activities can not only help with pacing, but they can help promote resilience throughout challenging times by providing a bit more balance in the day. I’ll invite you to consider what tends to “fuel” you or give you more points to work with.

Some things to consider when reflecting on pacing:

  • Everyone’s experience is unique to them, so try your best not to compare to others’ level of functioning or task-completion when pacing, as this can lead to pushing ourselves past our tolerance levels.
  • Practice self-reflection and the art of making adjustments. How well did you pace today? How did your body respond? Did you need to use your points or gas in a different way so you didn’t reach your limit too soon?
An image of a father with his two children at a field
  • Set realistic goals. Are you trying to pace and respect your body’s limits, but also trying to check every single item off of your to-do list as well? Perfectionistic urges or tendencies can make pacing quite challenging, so being mindful of what your expectations are, and if they’re actually in-line with your capacity, is important.
  • Listen to your body. This can require a lot of focus and mindfulness to be able to truly notice the subtle and not-so-subtle signals within our body that we can often ignore or not notice. Sometimes we become accustomed to our pain, or are in so much pain that other physical experiences can become harder to notice. Developing a habit of checking in with our body is like collecting important data needed to make effective pacing-related decisions.
  • Sometimes it can feel very isolating or lonely being in a position of having to pace. It can feel like the rest of the world doesn’t have to, but we do. Being open about our need to pace or being willing to ask for help is important. This can open the doors to receiving additional support on tougher days, to not feel so isolated and misunderstood, and it can help with staying accountable.
  • Expectations, thoughts, and beliefs can play a major role in pacing as well. Learning to identify and then challenge any biases, assumptions, or inaccurate beliefs around pacing can be crucial. For instance, having a limitations-focused mindset can be exhausting and can hinder our ability to continue making the tough choices to pace each day. Acceptance, and reframing the reason for our choices can be helpful, such as “taking it slower than I would like today means that I will be able to do more tomorrow”.
  • Use resources and materials to help. This can be using your phone or having a sheet of paper to track your activities and noting your body’s reaction to these activities. Pacing can involve making difficult decisions multiple times a day, so using a tool that can provide structure and information can help with the process.
  • Know your priorities and treat tasks based on their importance and urgency. What’s important and urgent can be prioritized, but what’s important and not urgent can be scheduled for a more appropriate time. Something that is urgent but not important that you be the one to do it can be delegated to someone else, and something that simply is not important or urgent for you can perhaps be deleted off of the list.

When all is said and done, pacing is not easy and has a lot of grey areas. It is certainly not as easy or simple as reading a post like this and following the suggestions. It can be an on-going assessment of our choices and our body and mind’s reactions to these choices. The journey to learning what pacing looks like for you can be a process but there are services and resources out there to help support you through it!

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