Updated on 3/8/2023
If you’ve had a chronic illness or pain condition for a while, you probably have heard about the need to pace your activities to prevent flare ups of symptoms. Many of us struggle with overdoing it and then crashing. We recover only to repeat this process over and over. This had been how I functioned most of the time, until I finally decided that I had to take better care of myself.
Pacing well requires planning first. Think about it like you want to paint a room in your house. Painting requires collecting supplies, prepping the walls, taping and covering things that you don’t want paint on, etcetera. Pacing ourselves well requires similar steps. Here are my tips for pacing well:
- Brain Dump
- Prioritize and Cull
- Break Tasks into Chunks
- Work for 15 minute time periods
- Rest twice as long as you work
- Listen to Your Body
We’ll cover each step in more detail below.
1. Brain Dump
I can’t remember where I read this idea, but it has been really useful for me over the past couple years. A brain dump is essentially writing down everything on your mind that needs your attention. It frees up head space. No more struggling to remember everything you need to do, because it’s written down. I like to organize this process into things that need done now and things that need done later. Include supplies needed for tasks that you want to do.
2. Prioritize and Cull
Look at your list of things that you want to do and assign priorities. You may find that some of your items are things you feel you should do or might one day do. Ask yourself :
Does everything on this list really need done?
Can you simplify any of the tasks?
Would a family member or friend be willing and able to help with a task?
Can some of the items be pushed off till you have more energy?
Be realistic here. If some of your to-do items are there to meet other people’s expectations, do they really need to be done? Where possible simplify, delegate, or remove items from your list.
3. Break Tasks into Chunks
Breaking a large task into smaller pieces and doing a small amount daily or at intervals throughout the day, is better than trying to do the large task all at one time. This works really well with cleaning. When my bathroom needs cleaned, I put cleanser in the toilet while I get dressed. The next time I go to the bathroom, I clean the toilet bowl. I may wipe it down with disinfectant wipes then or later depending on my energy/pain levels. After using the sink, I’ll put cleanser in it to soak. The next time I’m in the bathroom, I wipe down the sink. Cleaning the bathroom is so much more manageable this way.
You can do the same for mental tasks.
4. Work For 15 Minute Time Periods
I can manage 15 minute work periods, so this works for me. You may be able to work at a task for a shorter or longer period. For example, here’s how I clean up my kitchen.
unload the dishwasher
load the dishwasher
put hand washable items in hot, soapy water to soak
unload dish drying rack
wash a few dishes
On good energy days, I may not need to rest between every step. On low energy days, I may need to rest for 30 minutes between tasks. It also helps to change up the types of things you’re doing. Do some mental work and then something more physical. Paying bills or balancing your checkbook can be just as tiring as cleaning the bathroom. So change it up.
Try to use your best times of day for different tasks. For example, fatigue and brain fog get worse for me in late afternoon and early evening. This is not a good time for any kind of work for me. If I rest then, I get a second wind and can be more productive with mental tasks. Think about your best times of day and what tasks you can do then.
5. Rest Twice As Long As You Work
According to Tami Stackelhouse, author of Take Back Your Life: Find Hope and Freedom From Fibromyalgia Symptoms and Pain, “in order for your body to be able to put energy into healing, you’ve got to leave some energy unused.” Everything we do takes up energy. If you’re exhausted all the time, pushing yourself to keep going will only make it worse. Don’t be like me and wait until your body totally gives out and forces you to rest.
The other aspect of rest to take into consideration is relaxation. Lying on the couch fretting about what you are not able to do is not restful. Julie Holliday is a meditation and relaxation coach. I learned from her that we need to engage our parasympathetic nervous system in order to heal and digest our food. Many of us live our lives in constant high alert states called sympathetic nervous system arousal. What we may know as fight-or-flight.
I recently realized that I have lived in fight or flight mode for many years. It’s no wonder I’m exhausted. Learning to relax and meditate is helping me be more aware of body tension and helping me to let the tension go. What about you? Do you live in a state of fight or flight? Are you able to relax when you rest?
6. Listen To Your Body
As the day goes on, it’s really important to listen to your body. Just stop now and then and check in with yourself. Is anything hurting or sore? Do you need a snack or a nap? Do you have the energy to do a bit more or do you need a break? This is where I have the most trouble. I forget to check in until it’s too late. My conversation with myself goes something like this: “Why do I feel so crummy? Oh, silly. It’s 2 pm and you never ate lunch.” Or “Wow, why do I have a headache? Oh yeah, it’s the middle of the day and I’ve had one glass of water and I’ve been reading for hours.”
Or I’m so intent on completing some task that I keep going. For example, I want to finish this blog post so I keep typing even though my fingers are cramping up. Really, I’m guilty of this right now! Here’s a list of free apps that remind us to take a break when we’re working on our computers. I need to check these out. https://www.techrepublic.com/blog/five-apps/five-free-apps-to-help-remind-you-to-take-a-break/
I especially have trouble pacing myself when I’m doing something with other people. I feel guilty for needing to rest while others are working. This happened to me last week when my kids were helping remove a wallpaper border in my living room/dining room. I figured I could just sit on the staircase and remove that border while they did the high one. Unfortunately for me, I wanted to get that stairwell finished so I just kept wetting and peeling paper till I was exhausted. The next day, I had severe lower back spasms. “Hello! Are you listening now?” my body screamed at me.
Moral of this story: LISTEN TO YOUR BODY and stop when it whispers or it will soon be screaming at you!
In those situations, I need to set a timer and stop, and take a break when it goes off. Pacing is a constant process that we need to pay attention to everyday.
Be Kind To Yourself
Finally, the most important thing is to be kind to yourself as you learn how to pace yourself. We will make mistakes. We will overdo it at times. How we talk to ourselves about those mistakes makes all the difference in how we feel. Treat yourself like you treat a loved one, and this healing process will go much smoother and you will be happier.
If you’ve found something that helps you pace yourself that I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to hear about it below in the comments.
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Till next time, Kathy