Mindfulness Researcher Shannon Phillips Breathworks Foundation23 September 2021

Breathworks research assistant and teacher-in-training Shannon shares her top tips for pacing yourself to prevent burnout and flare-ups.

Our September theme on the Breathworks Community of Practice has been ‘The Art of Pacing’ – given that you’re reading this blog post today, I’m sure you’ll agree that pacing really is an ‘art.’

Pacing is something I've really had to work on following a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome / ME. And boy... it does NOT come naturally. In fact, I originally found it incredibly frustrating. "How on Earth can I pace?" I used to ask the doctor. "I can't afford to take things easy, I need to hold down a job and pay the bills."

However, with the help of mindfulness, I started to learn that pacing isn't about doing nothing or accepting the unacceptable. It's about making those practical "work smart, not hard" decisions that can ultimately help us get more from life, rather than being tangled in a repetitive boom and bust cycle.

Like mindfulness, pacing is an ongoing practice, and one which takes a little bit of experimentation to find techniques that work for you. Below I’ve listed 10 things that help me to pace, however, please note that it’s ok if these things don’t work for you. In fact, I’d love for you to continue this list in the comments below – what are your Top Tips for Pacing?

1.  Treat Every Day as a Fresh Start 

So yesterday was a 'bad' or 'unproductive' day.... you'll make up for it tomorrow right? 

Be careful of this dangerous trap of compensating for your 'bad' days on 'better' days. Whilst this might have you achieving your to-do list in the short-term, it's likely to keep you in that Boom and Bust cycle in the longer term. Try starting each day fresh, being present to the now rather than carrying over the day before. 


2. Know Your Rhythm

You'll probably know whether you're an Early Bird or Night Owl, or somewhere in between. Don't be afraid to work within your rhythm if this is possible. If you know that it's impossible for you to concentrate after lunch, maybe that's the time to rest or switch task to something less cognitively demanding such as housework. If you know you're super alert at 8pm, perhaps that's when you tackle your most challenging task. 


3. Don't See Pacing as a Chore - Get Curious!  

When I first attempted pacing, I was trying all sorts of complex ways to track and analyse my activity which ironically became exhausting in itself. I found pacing much less daunting when I simply became CURIOUS.

For even just a day or two, I'd invite you to note down everything you do, and the times at which you do them. Include seemingly insignificant things, such as conversations, phone scrolling and having a shower. It's important to bring a non-judgemental attitude to this exercise, and not to alter your usual behaviour in any way. You could even use a Breathworks Pacing Diary as a useful template.

You could now take three colours or symbols, and code activities by whether they sustain you (boost energy), drain you, or have little effect. 

Are there any draining activities that could be removed or reduced (e.g. social media scrolling in the morning)? 

What would it look like to add a couple of sustainers in your day (e.g. stretching, listening to upbeat music)? 


4. Have a To-DONE list, as well as a To-Do list 

Of course that makes no grammatical sense, but you get the gist. Keeping a 'to-done' list can be a great way of reminding yourself how much you HAVE achieved on a day, even if that's things such as having a shower, making a friend smile, spending time with your pets etc... 


5. Don't be Afraid to Say 'NO'  

Simple in theory, harder in practice. Often we do things because we feel we SHOULD, whether that's to please another person or because we hold an expectation of ourselves. A great journaling prompt I learned at a workshop was to write a list of things that you give yourself permission not to do. Here's just a few examples: 

- Saying NO to a social invitation 

- Saying NO to taking on an additional responsibility

- Saying NO to overuse of phone / social media 

- Saying NO to housework 

- Saying NO to feeling guilty for not meeting someone's requests 


6. Take the Easy Option!

This one might sound daft, but genuinely, how can you make each activity that little bit easier? As a personal example, I've recently switched to meal replacement drinks for breakfast and lunch and it has made a huge difference to the mental and physical energy taken to prepare three meals a day. Other examples include:  

- Having groceries delivered rather than walking around a supermarket 

- Buying prepared vegetables or investing in a kitchen appliance that does this for you 

- Cooking in bulk and freezing leftovers 

- Sitting down to do a task such as washing up

- Asking for help and delegating tasks with loved ones


7. It's OK to do Things in Stages

Many of us don't like to do things by halves - but it's really ok to just do one small part of a bigger job. If you are planning on doing some housework, whilst it's tempting to fully clean a whole room, why not just do the dusting? If you need to run a few errands in town, could you take rest breaks between each shop? Notice any negative or urgent thoughts that may arise expressing a need to do it all in one go. 


8. Be Flexible (with your pacing.... but stretching helps too)

It's unlikely your baseline will be the same month-to-month, or even day-to-day. Factors such as weather, season, daylight hours, illness and menstrual cycle can all affect our energy or pain levels. Just because you managed 5 hours of work last Monday doesn't mean you should expect that this Monday. Listen to what your body is telling you right now in this present moment. 


9. Doing vs Being Mode (A Breathworks Favourite)

If you've been involved with Breathworks for a while, you'll most likely be familiar with the concept of Doing vs Being mode, and the reminder that we are human BEINGS, not DOINGS. That said, it's rather striking to notice how much time we spend in doing mode. Perhaps experiment with breaking up your day with moments of being, such as watching the kettle boil, listening to sounds, connecting with the breath or resting into gravity.

10. Sometimes it's OK NOT to Pace!

Yes, I mean it. Of course many of us will find that pacing in our day-to-day lives can have a real positive impact on our symptoms, but remember to include a great dollop of self-compassion. Living with chronic pain or illness is tough as it is - don't add the secondary suffering of beating yourself up for not pacing perfectly all the time. Sometimes there's a need to balance symptom control with just living and enjoying life. On occasion, that could mean pushing yourself a little too far in order to enjoy time with a loved one, or do an activity that brings you great joy. Listen to what you need in that moment, and try not to beat yourself up for any flare ups that result from happy times.

These are just a few things that can support us with pacing (I could continue writing all day on this topic!)

Pacing is an essential part of our Mindfulness for Health course; if you have found this blog useful, you may like to join one of our online 8-week courses and get in-depth guided practice, diaries, and exercises to support your journey with pacing, along with a host of other mindfulness and compassion tools here:

Mindfulness for Health Courses

And to hear more about other’s experiences with pacing, why not join our FREE Breathworks Community of Practice and explore "The Art of Pacing" September topic? There you’ll find lots of insights from our Breathworks Team, as well as posts from fellow community members sharing their pacing experiences.

All the best,

Shannon x