The Art of Pacing – Live Long and Prosper

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

The art of pacing ourselves can literally mean the difference between life and death in today’s hectic world. There is little question that adrenal fatigue, headaches and gastrointestinal distress among other physical upsets is only the tip of the impact of stress without the buffering positive influence of pacing skills. In my work with people challenged with high levels of stress and anxiety, chronic pain issues and performers of all varieties (business people, athletes, actors and musicians), developing outstanding pacing skills has repeatedly shown itself to make a huge difference to their overall health and well-being as well as making a real difference to the quality of their work and performances.

On many levels pacing skills are integral to trusting yourself to take good care of yourself. Have you ever considered that there must be another alternative in life to the choice between going in slow motion or being a speedy blur? Micro-managing or macro-managing? Actually, they’re all destructive traps.


Hans Selye, who originated the word “stress” and developed the General Adaptation Syndrome to describe how humans handle environmental stressors, terms both extremes of hypo activity (doing too little, too slowly) and hyperactivity (doing too much, too quickly) distress. One undershoots and the other overshoots the optimal range of performance, a condition that Selye calls eustress or good stress. 1

Based on the pioneering ideas of Wilhelm Wundt from the 1870’s and known as the Wundt curve, D. E. Berlyne researched the premise that the pleasurable value of stimuli is the highest at intermediate levels of arousal or complexity. Although Berlyne’s approach appears to suffer from several methodological problems, his conclusion was correct: too little and too much stimulation are not pleasant; boredom and overload are not entertaining. 2

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, provides another slice into being stress-effective in his writings about optimal experience or flow. Flow activities are personally pleasureable experiences that occur within a flow channel negotiating between being overwhelmed with high challenges that exceed our time and skills-stressed anxiety-and being underwhelmed with low challenge that doesn’t hold our time and skills-boredom. Flow as optimized experience lies in the moderate ground where life challenges match personal skills. He notes:

“In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.”

Additional support for stress effectiveness through moderation that is linked with enhanced performance comes in the form of the Yerkes-Dodson law. This behavioral generalization states that moderate levels of motivation or arousal produce optimal performance. Author Alfie Kohn interprets this law to mean that there is an optimum level of arousal for every task as well as this level is decreased for more difficult and complex tasks. 4

It’s too easy for many of us to get caught up with the big picture to the detriment of the details or to become preoccupied with the minutia and miss the larger perspective. Don’t look at the brushstroke, look at the picture and don’t look at the picture, look at the brushstroke are both true, strangely enough.

Pacing skills permit us to maintain the range of productive living at a level of optimal stress. Although they are highly underrated in our society, pacing skills are essential for maximizing our personal and environmental resources when we face our emotional, mental, social, and especially physical limitations.

Illustrations illuminate. For example, athletes and regular exercisers know the value of warming up and cooling down—both pacing skills. For another, successful entrepreneurs regularly jump in with great bursts of energy and actions only to be followed with downtime of rest, relaxation and recreation.

In my experience, there are seven crucial pacing skills that can maximize individual effectiveness, resulting in more tasks accomplished and far less downtime of lethargic boredom or elevated pain. Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “Make haste slowly.”

Seven pacing skills for everyone

1. Find the proper speed or pace for doing each activity (some people or activities operate better going slower, some faster).

Think of a continuum of speed, from very slow to very quick, for human beings accomplishing tasks. Focus on your unique range of speed or pace that practically works for you in successfully completing any given task. Within this range, however narrow or wide and slow or speedy, your actions can usually be effective. Now, alongside your personal continuum of pace, place a second one that purely applies to the task itself. Consider what range of speed or pace is highly likely to practically function for anyone in being successful at this particular task.

With these two continuums side by side, the trick is to match the two ranges and stay between the range which overlays. In other words, consider choosing your speed or pace that is within both your individual range of pacing in addition to the range for successfully accomplishing the task at hand. With some tasks you will have a broad overlay, with other tasks you will have a rather narrow range. With still others there will be no overlay—a sign not to do the activity since it clearly does not work for you.

2. Break down larger, long-term goals into smaller, short-term goals to accomplish over several hours, days, weeks, or even months.

As much as human beings sometimes thinks they can tackle their desired goals in one fell swoop or at least in fairly short order, the world will just as often inform you that “it ain’t necessarily so.” Excellent pacing appreciates the step-by- step, incremental process of goal accomplishment by breaking larger goals into several short-term smaller ones, and further to spread the time for their completion over several hours, days, weeks or months.

Besides lowering the risk for exhaustion, injury and frustration, you gain the advantage of much needed perspective. By re-visioning your long-term goal with feedback from the process, you can continually make needed adjustments to adapt your initial vision, plan and goals to the desired outcome.

3. Know when not to do the activity and either delegate, hire someone, or go without it.

Drawing upon the mutual ranges of what practically functions for you as well as completing the task in the first pacing skill above, what if the ranges simply don’t overlay. Either the task demands greater speed than you bring or it requires greater methodical slowness than you can offer. Either way it’s clear that you are not the one to do it, at least not without paying a potentially high cost in aggravation, time, injury and it just not working out very well, if at all.

Good judgment would advise letting go of that particular task, or possibly delegating it or hiring someone else who is skilled in that specific area. Since I have essentially no skills at plumbing and there would be no mutual overlay of skills and task, it would be foolhardy for me to engage in it.

In a broader context, there is tremendous intelligence in using restraint by choosing to do absolutely nothing at times. While there are clearly times and situations that demand quick action, there are far more times when a postponed response can be a far better one. Larry Dossey, author, medical doctor and leading edge champion of alternative health therapies, makes a strong case for patient waiting and staying out of the way of normal, natural healing processes. 5

There are certainly times when a seemingly intractable problem will resolve itself in a panoply of ways, whether by outgrowing it, growing bored or tired of it, changes in relationships or environment, coming to a new view or perspective of it, sleeping on it, and simply being with it to have an opening for dissolving or disentangling revealed. If we can refrain from immediately rushing to action spurred on by conditioning, negative judgments and fear, we can consider a more judicious response. As Larry Dossey, M.D. reminds, “The Body often recovers not because of what we do, but in spite of it.” 6

4. Take breaks, recesses, and time-outs, especially when engaged in a high risk, actively taxing or strenuous activity.

There is something about taking a pause in the stream of actions that allows something new and productive to occur. High risk activities such as going to a smorgasbord or buffet, drinking at a party and getting caught in an endless non-constructive conversation with an intimate qualify for taking a time-out. This allows you to reflect on the situation, your urges and behavior, and then engage whichever pacing skills are most fitting.

An illustration may shed some light. Take an uncle of mine named Sam. He would appoint himself to supervise while my brother and I would attempt moving a couch through a tight doorway. After some struggle and various ways to angle the couch, we would be successful. While huffing and sweating from the effort, he would strongly advocate, “Recess!” We just looked at him like he was half mad. He continued, “That’s right, just breathe and walk around a little.” So we did. Oddly, we did catch our breaths, spread blankets in the vehicle and better managed the rest of the moving process. He knew the value of time-outs.

Taking a nap, break, walk or other diversion can be enormously helpful in clearing our head to effectively accomplish a goal. When we receive feedback that a task is particularly difficult, it may mean to keep pressing forward in a persistent fashion. It may also mean we’re going about it in an unworkable or inappropriate manner. Pausing to re-examine what we have taken on can help distinguish which hypothesis is correct, and what to do now.

5. Check in with you on physical, emotional and mental levels, as often as warranted by the nature of the activity, and follow through by making needed adjustments.

Periodically checking in with yourself on various levels of living, such as physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, financially and so on, is a helpful safeguard. Only by so doing such a ‘state of yourself’ can you detect rumblings of problems before they become overwhelming.

For instance, you do some new stretching exercises for your back, and all goes well until you do an especially hard one. After your first effort, you feel winded, a little off kilter. You pause to check in and discover your back telling you to stop now. You comply, walk around, drink some water and slowly do a few easier stretches. Checking in again, all is well. You can only wonder what you sidestepped experiencing. A good deal by anyone’s reckoning.

6. Set a recent, realistic and workable standard to compare yourself to. Make sure to compare you only with you, and then only within the last year.

It can be heartbreaking to have people who are challenged with limits, whether physical ones involving chronic pain, social ones involving anxiety, or financial ones involving urges to overspend on limited means, who use standards that are anything but realistic.

For illustration, a person challenged with chronic back pain after a work injury in her 40’s puts in efforts to clean out their garage with their spouse over a holiday weekend. Using a standard from her early 20’s in terms of what physical energy and stamina she brings, she continues for almost five hours straight at the task. Choosing to ignore her body’s feedback she ends up crawling to her bed, where she stays for one to two days of painful recovery.

So long as she continued to use the same standard from her young adulthood, she locked herself in a hurting, self-defeating cycle. Shift her standard to account for her injury, current age and physical health, and she may set forty-five minutes to an hour as a realistic standard at any one time.

7. Modulate your levels of stimulation from both your external and internal environments to stay well clear of being flooded or put to sleep.

The level of stimulation we allow and experience can overwhelm or under whelm us to our detriment or our benefit. When we feel pressured, stressed, put in a bind, out of control, powerless, helpless, resigned or given up, we become engulfed or flooded with emotion. Under these conditions of being emotionally overwhelmed, we all tend to defend against it in specific ways as well as progressively experience some form of breakdown, whether sooner or later. This can also apply when we do not have sufficient levels of stimulation, which is often associated with lethargy, passivity, chronic sleeping and a host of disturbances.


People often defend themselves from being overly stimulated by denial, avoidance, procrastination, projection, displacing emotions onto someone else, dissociating, anxiety, depression and panic to name a few. Some people also work up their anger or nurse their hurt or both that creates unnecessary suffering and drama in their lives and relationships. Individuals might engage in antagonistic arguments, sarcastic criticism, and negative judgments with their spouse, children, in-laws, extended family, employer, co-workers and friends.

Breakdowns in living may take the form of a somatic disturbance that ranges across the whole gamut of stress-related symptoms and syndrome. This can include elevated cortisol levels associated with heart disease, angina, heart fibrillations, migraines and other forms of headaches, unexplained aches and pains, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal difficulties and skin disturbances. Comedian Woody Allen says, “I don’t get angry, I get a tumor.”

The way out of the trap is to recognize how you specifically end up in the ditches of under-stimulation, over-stimulation or yo-yoing back and forth. It is well worth observing your external environment’s stimulation levels including light, sound, noise, density, crowdedness, people and the emotional intensity level of these factors for you. If you desire greater stimulation, then you can search out and choose environments that provide greater stimulation, excitement and intensity. Most of us don’t have hypo activity as our stress issue.

Alternatively, you may be with the majority who periodically experience way too much stimulation, demands, stress and pressure in their life. You may decide to de-stress and desensitize yourself under these too intense external conditions by turning the lights, sound and noise way down and limiting interactions with intense, demanding or critical people. Similarly there is great value in noticing what you do internally, especially what your mind does with your perceptions. Does your mind obsess, worry, declare problems, be highly negative and perfectionist, think up worst-case scenarios and so on?

The healthy management and modulation of your external environment’s and internal system’s stimulation levels will help you stay on your path and not run off the road in either direction. All of this boils down to honoring the principle of conservation of energy. The strategy of erecting guardrails on the boundary edges of your life path can preventatively alert you when you are dangerously close to the ditches so you can take corrective action in time to conserve and protect yourself and your energy.

Pacing skills are not just for those with chronic pain, the elderly or infirm. Were they ever? Using them, see how little time you spend stressed, down time to recover or in some form of exhausted breakdown. See how much time you can function effectively, feel well and joyful, accomplish your goals, enliven your relationships and be in better balance on all levels. You might be very pleasantly surprised.

Actively Resting

To create time, space, intention and action to rest in our hyper-driven, ever doing, doing, doing society in which you really wonder what the winning rat in the rat race actually wins, is almost unheard of, un-thought of, un-capitalistic and possibly un-American! Better to die on the job as a workaholic and have to pry your dead fingers off your keyboard or machine?!!

Better to take lousy care of your own body and meeting your own needs, and even lousier care of your marriage and family, than to create anything that approaches a better balance in your work and home life! Oh, really? To rest when all of our society is awash in selling us anticipation-to-drool-for-whether it is any of a million distractions using love, excitement, adventure, success, fame or fortune as the hook —would surely be utter foolishness! Or would it? What if all the trumpeted pleasures, wealth, attractiveness and verve are fine for what they are, but incredibly oversold and overvalued?

You can take fine, even superb, care of yourself for yourself primarily, but also so you are up and running to offer loved ones, co-workers and friends the same. You can spend one-third of your life in some form of rest, instead of any more entertainment time in front of a screen of any sort. Yes it takes the genuine article—what could be called actively resting. I’ll admit this is a bit of a ruse, but an innocent and effective enough one. Here’s how this works.

You sort of fool yourself to do this thing called rest by calling it active rest. You can tell anyone whose facial expression communicates displeasure or irritation, “I’m actively resting…doctor’s orders you know!” and almost everyone will nod begrudging approval and mainly leave you alone, and that’s good. It works like magic because you actually just needed some approved and permission. Besides your own, and now you’ve found it from others as well. Good for you and everyone else too.

H.A.L.T. and C.L.E.A.R.

The two acronyms H.A.L.T. and C.L.E.A.R. provide easily remembered keys to knowing when pacing isn’t occurring and when it is. H.A.L.T. originally derived from twelve-step programs offering support for people facing addictive behavior patterns. It identifies four common triggers that can easily defeat and sabotage efforts to live functionally and take control of your life. It can usefully be applied to anyone who in a self-defeating state of consciousness, attitude or action. Additionally H.A.L.T. can help you spot when you are not operating with excellent self-care, including pacing skills.

“H” stands for hungry and is associated with impulsively acting before you think and poor judgment.

“A” stands for angry and this emotion can easily be irresponsibly displaced onto others and your environment with destructive results.

“L” stands for lonely and this feeling can easily distract you from necessary and healthful activities.

“T” stands for tired and this feeling state leaves you quite susceptible to being easily influenced without using good judgment.

When any one trigger is present, that’s called danger. When two triggers are present, that’s extreme danger. When three or four of these signals are present, that’s emergency.

Each remedy is straight-forward: if hungry, then eat; if angry, then feel, express and work these feelings through you and release them; if lonely, then find companionship and belonging; and if tired, then give yourself sufficient time to sleep, rest and regenerate yourself. Realistic planning, structuring and scheduling can disallow or not permit these triggers to occur in the first place, even before you get ambushed by them not far down the line.

Even more affirmatively, I appreciate C.L.E.A.R. as a helpful handle for recognizing when you are productively and happily humming along, whether in the flow, playing your inner game or in the zone of healthy, enjoyable living. These five messages help confirm that you are where you belong, doing what you are here to do and pacing yourself in an excellent manner.

“C” stands for centered and certain.
This is the state in which you feel connected to your feelings and values, goals and dreams. You feel a sense of solidness, certainty and belonging to the earth, people you love and meet as well as other living things. In a centered, certain state, there is a developing sense of balance and it is difficult for life circumstances to throw you for too big of a loop..

“L” stands for lucid and light.
This is the state of consciousness in which you more easily understand life, the world and yourself. You can perceive, intuit and think very clearly in sorting the kernel of wheat from the chaff, the underlying truth from the illusory appearance. You feel light and unconstrained by outside circumstances, since you quickly and continually take care of the business life presents by giving assertive feedback and taking necessary actions. In a lucid, light state, your mind operates more facilely, much like a familiar, well-practiced tool you consistently depend on, and you travel lightly given how little is incomplete.

“E” stands for enthusiastic and energetic,
so that you bring the fuel of inspired energy to invested and engaged activities. In an enthusiastic, energetic state, you bring an absorbing liveliness and keen interest in your life endeavors. An outgoing, sociable attitude naturally enlists other people, drawing them into sharing the fun of the process and the possibility of the pleasing rewards that can accrue as products.

“A” stands for active and activist,
since anyone who is in the flow of life activity, purposely aims at progress toward personally meaningful goals. Taking the bull by the horns, the person who is making their dreams come true is certainly an activist in their own cause and usually with a larger, universal dream. With enough steam in your engine, enough wind in your sails, little can elude one who is relentlessly persistent and undefeatable in attitude. Entrepreneurial ‘go-getters’ go send their ships out, then they go bring their ships back in to home port.

“R” stands for relaxed and refreshed,
the state of being receptive to perceiving the opportunities life presents in addition to being able to respond. You can capitalize, optimize and maximize these prospects to accomplish their life goals. Having received sufficient regenerative sleep and rest, your mind and body are mentally, physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually ready, refreshed and rejuvenated. In this state, you feel supported in all facets of your ever moving, changing and adapting life activities.

Keeping C.L.E.A.R. in these ways provides innumerable benefits, both personal and altruistic, many unseen until fully experienced. The bonus in staying C.L.E.A.R. in embodying pacing skills, managing stress optimally and healthy pleasures is enhanced trust in yourself.


1 Hans Selye, The Stress of Life (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1956).

2 D. E. Berlyne’s approach is summarized in Michael Kubovy, “On the Pleasures of the Mind.” In Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz (Eds.) Well-being: The Foundation of Hedonic Psychology (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999), pages 134-154, reference: pages 139-142.

3 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1990), pages 72-77, quote: page 74.

4 Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986), reference: page 63.

5 Larry Dossey, “The Great Wait: In Praise of Doing Nothing,” Alternative Therapies 2 (6), November 1996, pages 8-14, quote: page 8.

6 Larry Dossey, “The Great Wait: In Praise of Doing Nothing,” Alternative Therapies 2 (6), November 1996, pages 8-14, page 12.

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