Pacing Your Everyday Tasks – How the Tortoise Beats the Hare

Pain often gets in the way of getting things done. If you’re anything like me, you’re often torn between pushing through the pain or feeling guilty for not being able to contribute as much as you want. But, actually, there is  another way forward – let me introduce practical pacing.

Call it what you like, pacing, graded (or graduated) activity, mindfulness in daily life (as per the 'Mindfulness for Health' book), but pacing is an evidenced-based approach for pain self-management. Or, more simply, pacing is about finding a way to get s$#t done!

Here at MoreGoodDays®, we’re sometimes a broken record when we talk about pacing. We’ve talked about it before when it comes to getting moving again. But, the reason why we always talk about pacing is that it works! The same concepts that we use to get moving again, can also be used to complete daily tasks like housework, working, gardening…anything that you might find challenging when you are living with pain.

How do you do activity pacing?

Let's take cleaning as an example. Think of the iconic Mrs Doubtfire (or Tom Cruise in Risky Business?) dancing and swinging the hips, housework can be an intense activity! All of the bending, moving and even potentially carrying a heavy vacuum – cleaning can be a serious workout! Consider vacuuming, if your house is like mine (full of dog fur and carpet), it can take an hour of pretty intense activity, which might result in pain. The following day may also be a write-off because you’ve overdone it. 

Instead of vacuuming the whole house, consider using pacing as an alternative approach. Break down the vacuuming into small manageable bits. Try only doing 10 minutes per room then stop, take a break, maybe even do some stretches, then continue. Sure, it might take longer but the job gets done and you stay within manageable levels of energy and pain (both today and tomorrow!).

As you can see from this example, it’s important to plan your pacing (and stick to the plan!). There’s a danger that once you get started, you feel okay, and then decide to power on. Please resist the temptation (I can say this from a place of someone who often powers on and regrets it later)! Pacing, ideally using a timer to remind you to take breaks, requires discipline and mindful awareness. All of which can be tricky to begin with, however trust me, if you try it you’ll see the longer term rewards and you can actually get more done.

What? Don't believe me? Check out the following example:

Example one, the 'all in one go' approach

  • The plan: Monday – mop floors (2 hours), Tuesday – laundry (1 hour)
  • What actually happened: Monday – mop floors (complete), Tuesday – pain flare (rest)
  • Total completed: 2 hours

Example two, the 'practical pacing' approach

  • The plan: Monday – mop floors (2 hours), Tuesday – laundry (1 hour)
  • What actually happened: Monday – mop floors (complete – took a total of 6 hours because only worked for 10 minutes at a time with breaks in between), Tuesday – laundry (complete – took a total of 4 hours because put the clothes on, took a break, hung out a ¼ basket load, then took a break and repeated until finished)
  • Total completed: 3 hours

So, in the practical pacing approach example above, both the mopping and the washing got done!

I know that you are looking at the mopping and can see that it took up most of the day. While that is true, you can also consider all the other activities that can be completed in your breaks (such as sitting to do some paperwork as a rest, going for a walk, running errands). When I began pacing everyday activities, like the example above, I would create a list of rest activities before getting started (yes, you may have guessed – I’m a big fan of lists, even a list of ‘rest’ activities). This means that when my timer went off I didn't always choose the ‘lie down’ option for my break. I could sit and watch a TV show, read a book, go for a walk, stretch, meditate, have a bath…you get the idea.

This kind of pre-planning is actually a key part of pacing. Successful pacing is more than just resting – it’s creating a plan and sticking with it. Another key to pacing is variability of rests. Sometimes you need a physical rest and other times perhaps you need a mental rest (find out more about the types of rest). And yes, pacing might mean you leave the house with a mop bucket stuck in a corner with half the floor clean and half dirty. But this strategy gets the job done (in the end) and, even better, your pain is manageable because you have done the activity within your capabilities. Woo hoo – go you!

Other pacing strategies

Some of you reading this might be thinking, "yeah, but I really only have two hours." You might need to get housework done around other daily tasks such as working, family time etc. Time is precious, right?

That just means that you need to get creative. Could you try putting the washing on in the morning, then hang it out in the afternoon? Could you mop just one room each day? Remember, that two hours that you have available also needs to include your rest time. So, with two hours available you might actually have 90 minutes of ‘active’ time and 30 minutes for ‘rest’ time in total. What can you get done in 90 minutes? It may not seem like enough time – but it is better than the alternative.

If you have two hours a day for housework, you’ll still get more done over the week if you pace it rather than try to push through the pain and be unable to get anything done the next two days. Plus avoiding a pain flare is always a win!

Also, don't wait to rest. If the timer has gone off, please stop and take a break. Don’t think, I'll just do this and then rest because – it always happens – another thing grabs your attention that just must be done.

You may hate to leave a task unfinished. That’s understandable. No-one likes to leave a job only half done! It took me a long time to feel comfortable with leaving a kitchen full of mess (and I really am a highly-skilled mess maker, just ask my family!) or only folding half the washing, or (shock horror) only vacuuming one room. Finishing a task is always so satisfying. However, successful pacing often needs more flexibility and self compassion. That’s why acceptance is another key component to pacing!

A half completed task may feel like a failure, but if by resting, you’re able to come back later and finish the job (rather than being wrecked for the rest of the day), don’t you think that's worth it?

One way to power up this acceptance is by adding playfulness. Maybe set yourself a post-it note ‘work in progress, returning after my rest!’ This way, other people in the house know your intentions and plans. Or make it a fun activity. Some people have Taco Tuesday, why not have Half-Housework Sunday? Sometimes some self compassion and a bit of fun can make all the difference. 

Starting to use practical pacing also gives you an opportunity to reexamine your priorities. In my case, did I really need a house gleaming like a home magazine? It may be nice to dream about, but by dropping that expectation I was able to use pacing to give me more time to spend with my kids, which aligned more with my values – and how I actually wanted to spend my time!

What happens if you don’t vacuum under the couch? You might get dust bunnies, and dust bunnies don’t mean a whole lot when you think of all the extra family time you can gain. I decided it was time to embrace my inner Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind (‘Afterall, tomorrow is another day!’). But, unlike Scarlett, this approach wasn’t a postponement, a procrastination or a failure, it was an active choice to put myself first and live within my values.

Knowledge is power

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You’re already familiar with my love for lists. So, here are some quick cheats to help reduce the stress and embed the practical pacing approach.

Treat yourself

Who here is motivated by rewards? Chocolate? Think about a way to treat yourself once you have finished each task. Even if it did take a long time, you got it done!

Finding a fun endpoint to work towards, beyond the sense of accomplishment, of course, can be very motivating. There are a ton of options – a walk in the park, or a cup of tea and a good book as your final ‘reward rest’.

Another hack is putting something on your ‘to-do’ list that you’ve already done. Treat yourself to the satisfaction of ticking something off the list! That way progress has already been made, and the list feels like it isn’t insurmountable. Or you can add something silly to your list like the necessary freestyle dancing in kitchen (or whatever takes your fancy to lighten the mood!). Add all of the things you want to do to the same list (not just things that must be done). I would add my pain-management exercises because it felt good to cross them off knowing I was doing something positive for my health. 

Ditch the comparisons

It's hard not to, especially in this social media era of “Hey, check out my spotless home!” pictures, but comparison is the enemy of practical pacing plans. It can be easy to think ‘I must do [xyz] because that is what [that person] is doing.’ But remember, everyone's journey is different! Maybe the destination is similar but your path might take a while longer.

Author, Brené Brown talks about her competitive spirit coming out when she is at a public swimming pool and she needs to constantly remind herself to ‘stay in your own lane’.

Also, avoid falling into the self-comparison trap. It’s important not to focus on what you ‘used’ to be able to achieve. Just focus on the here and now. 

Remember your why: pacing helps with pain

Remember that these little chunks of activity on your list are helping you live well with pain, and that by sticking to your pacing plan you’ll not only get more done but you’ll feel better while doing it. Practical pacing ensures that you have more good days after all! You can even add this reminder to your list. Try something quirky – ‘snacking not feasting’ or ‘be the tortoise and finish the race’ or even something motivational – ‘You got this!’ 

Refocus & prioritize

Before starting to tick the boxes of your next to-do list, take some time to review it. You might want to assess and prioritize (or even change) what really needs to be done.

Before I get started I always ask myself a few tough questions.

First, I ask myself "what do I need to do today that helps me achieve my goals and aligns with what is important to me?" Sometimes the answer is do nothing. And that’s okay! Tomorrow may be different, but I need to just focus on what is important right now.

Second, take inspiration from Marie Kondo (does this bring me joy?) – and declutter your to-do list.

Lastly, my favorite, ‘does this task really need to be done right now?’ This was written on a post-it note (at my husband's suggestion) and stuck above the washing machine at my house for years. It acted as a reminder of my goals and values, and reminded me that I could be spending my time more wisely.

Pacing with care

Practical pacing is strategic. It’s important to plan ahead for activities that really need to get done.

Do you have more energy in the morning than in the afternoon? Then do the most important tasks first thing. Do you find standing for long periods tiring? Then think of ways that you can do your activity sitting. For example, can you put a bar stool in the kitchen to sit on while you wash the dishes? Or chop the veggies while sitting down at a table? Heck, my mum used to do her ironing sitting at the kitchen table while watching TV!

Plan and strategize the best way to get things done! And don't forget, there is a really valuable tool in your arsenal at all times – asking for help.

And if I still haven't convinced you to give practical pacing a go, then consider this:

  • Practical pacing may help avoid the constant feelings of frustration that come from frequent flare-ups – the slow and steady approach will reduce the frequency and severity of flare-ups in the long run. 
  • Your ‘active’ periods can be slowly paced up. As you get the hang of pacing, you may find that your ‘active’ periods increase in duration and ‘rest’ periods become less frequent (and less necessary). 
  • If you stick to your pacing plan (and not pain levels), you might find that even on high pain days, you can still get things done. And there’s also likely a valuable lesson here around safety and positively reinforcing the idea that pain doesn't mean damage (bonus points!).
  • Your wellbeing may increase and your pain may decrease. Positive goal engagement (planning to achieve a goal) and solution-focused approaches are an important part of mental wellbeing and individuals’ experiences of living well with chronic pain. 

So, get busy, take breaks, stay busy, feel better! Experiment with practical pacing as a way to get things done. And let us know, how do you use practical pacing?