Pace Yourself

2021 begins – and the traditional time of year to make New Year’s Resolutions arrives once again. This year, the ongoing stress and uncertainty of the Covid pandemic may make it feel much harder than usual to make plans and set intentions for the coming year. At the same time, the sense that we are taking small, positive steps towards goals that feel meaningful and inspiring to us can provide focus, direction, and motivation through a very difficult period.

Setting resolutions and carrying them through can be challenging in the best of years, so how can you approach setting resolutions for 2021, to give yourself the best chance of reaching your goals?

‘Pacing’ is an approach to goal-setting and undertaking new activities which is taken from rehabilitation medicine for people recovering from serious injuries or chronic illness. Although pacing was developed with physical health in mind, it’s essentially a psychological approach. Pacing tackles the fact that we tend to set ourselves steps that are too demanding to meet our goals and then either over-stretch ourselves in pursuing them or give up when we encounter discomfort or challenge.

The key to pacing, is to settle on a goal that is less than we might want to go for and to only increase our goal-related activity slowly and gradually. The essence of pacing is ‘go slow to go far’.

What could this look like when setting New Year’s Resolutions?

Perhaps you want to have a clear-out of your home and get your personal admin in order for the New Year. Think about how much time you can commit to the activity required for this goal over the course of a week, taking into account your other commitments and allowing plenty of time for fun and relaxation. Be realistic! Perhaps three hours per week feels achievable to you. Then, halve that amount to 90 minutes and commit to two blocks of 45 minutes per week until you achieve your goal. Since this isn’t a physical fitness goal, you don’t need to worry about increasing the duration, frequency or intensity of an activity – for this kind of goal, the important thing is to sustain the required activity over time.

This is where another critical component of the pacing approach comes in: stick to the two sessions of 45 minutes each week devotedly, whether or not you feel like it. That means doing the 45 minutes if you’re not feeling in the mood that day – it’s only 45 minutes, after all: you can do it! Even more importantly: stop after 45 minutes even if you feel like the activity is going well and you’re very motivated to carry on. This is to protect you from the following problem, which is as fatal to the success of New Year’s Resolutions as Kryptonite is to Superman.

It goes like this: you start to make progress with a task and feel relatively contented and satisfied with what you are doing. As the scheduled time for the task to end approaches, you think that you are feeling fine and can easily make more progress – so you decide to clear-out just one more cupboard (for example). As you spend longer on the task, it starts to feel boring and overwhelming and you become frustrated and disappointed. You end the task feeling an aversion to doing the specific activity you need to do, to reach your overall goal of a tidy, comfortable and well-organised home. Your aversion for working on the activity means you lose momentum, so you fall into procrastination and self-criticism and make no further progress towards your goal.

If you stick with a paced approach, it goes like this: you start to make progress with a task and feel relatively contented and satisfied with what you are doing. As the scheduled time for the task to end approaches, you think that you are feeling fine and could easily make more progress, but you remind yourself that it is time to take a break and do something else. You look around you, feeling good

about the time you have spent and the progress you have made towards your overall goal. Even if the visible difference you have made today is modest and the task feels daunting, you tell yourself you have a realistic plan in place to get through the work that needs doing. You finish the task feeling positive and relaxed and – after a couple of days – when it’s time to do another 45 minute block of activity, you get started feeling relaxed and enthusiastic. You are free from having to battle with a sense of aversion for the activity you need to carry out, because it has not developed an association with boredom, overwhelm, disappointment and frustration.

To use pacing yourself this year:

1. Set your goal

2. Identify a realistic maximum amount of time and effort you could allocate to working on the steps required to reach your goal

3. Commit to doing half the realistic maximum you have identified

4. Structure how you will spend the time working on your goal so your activity is spread evenly over a day/week/month (whichever is applicable depending on your chosen goal)

5. If your goal requires you to increase the duration or frequency of an activity (e.g. physical exercise), do so very gradually

6. Stick devotedly to the structure you have decided on, putting in the time or effort required even when you don’t feel like it and stopping at the end of the session of activity even if you feel like carrying on!