How Pacing Trumps Every Other Productivity Strategy
I did it again. After my near burnout experience, I worked way beyond my capacity and fell in the bed exhausted and devastated. I still hadn’t finished my work. I kept on going back to the computer to keep editing the article, but it wasn’t making any sense.
I admire the writers who write an article a day. Some even manage two to three articles a day. I want to become like them. But it will take me years to get there. If I try, I might be able to do that for a few weeks, but I won’t sustain it.
A lot of accomplished writers on Medium advise writing an article a day. It is great advice if you are a seasoned writer. It is not hard to churn out an article a day if you have been writing for a couple of years or more.
And it is true that the more you write, the easier it becomes.
- You have more to say. Your thinking becomes clear, and you build on your previous advice.
- Your sentence structure improves. Writing every day gives you fluency with sentence construction, which inturns make it say to express your thoughts.
- The narrator in you is always on. It takes a while for my narrative voice to turn on when I write articles on alternate days. But if I write every day, the narrator in me stays on. It starts seeing a story in everything.
But what if you can’t write every day? What if you are still struggling with coming up with valuable content to write every day? What if you are close to burning out?
The pacing could be a solution then.
What is Pacing?
Let me explain pacing with a story:
In 1911, two teams arrived in Antarctica with the same goal — become the first to reach the South Pole. Roald Amundsen from Norway and Robert Scott from the UK led two different teams to win the south pole’s race.
Both managed to reach the pole. But Amundsen won the race and reached 34 days earlier than Scott.
The worst bit? Scott and 4 of his teammates died on the return journey — just 18km away from their food depot.
A lot of comparisons have been made on both teams’ approaches. Books have been written on it in great detail. The spots they choose as their base camps. Dogs vs. ponies. Amundsen used dogs while Scott used ponies. Since dogs can bear cold weather better than ponies, Amundsen could leave 11 days earlier for the expedition, while Scott had to wait for the weather to become warmer.
Sleds vs. skis. Scott took 3 motor sleds on the expedition, but all 3 broke down very soon. Amundsen focused on making sure everyone on his team knew how to ski well.
Scott’s team was malnourished, and many faced scurvy because of a lack of vitamin C in their diet. Amundsen’s team actually gained weight during their expedition.
But the most significant difference in both their approaches was the pacing of their expedition.
Amundsen made sure his team kept a constant pace of covering between 24–32 km per day. Even if the weather were good, he would not go further.
On the other hand, Scott pushed and trekked as far as 73 km in a single day when the weather and terrain were perfect. The ponies got extremely tired, and they couldn’t cover the average distance the next day.
While on individual good days, Scott could push and cover a lot more ground than Amundsen, overall, his pace was much slower!
It turned out that Amundsen was not only a much better planner than Scott, but he understood that the pacing was the key to coming back alive.
The slow tortoise beat the faster hare because the hare was inconsistent in its pacing. Steady wins.
Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.
The American Navy Seal has the saying — slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
If you see how elite infantry moves through a battlefield, you’ll notice that they never run. Compare them with not so well trained militia who sprints into the battle.
When things go wrong, the faster moving militia has to scamper to take cover. Their supply lines break up. And they fail to hold on to their land.
The sure-footed elite infantry, while moving slowly, achieves their win a lot quicker.
Jim Collins tells a tale of a similar competition in his book Great by Choice. In the 1980s, computer chip maker AMD set an audacious goal to grow by 60%. To achieve their goal, they borrowed heavily. And when things didn’t go as per plan, they had to scamper to pay their debt. They almost went bankrupt, while the more sure-footed Intel took the lead!
How do you pace yourself?
Long-distance marathon runners are taught that they will lose two minutes in the second half for every minute they run faster than their average speed in the first half of their race. They need to learn to pace themselves. They need to learn to keep a constant speed even when they are not as tired early on in the race. Because for the latter part of the race, they will have the added advantage of the endorphin rush.
The way they learn to pace themselves is by understanding their bodies during the training period. They are taught to focus on their heart rate while running — to gauge their perceived exertion while running. And to slow down appropriately. They need to be able to run without huffing and puffing!
They are given the guideline always to perform less than their best capacity.
During training, new runners are told to run a mile as fast as they can. That is their magic mile. And then, over a long distance, they are taught to run two to three minutes slower than their magic mile.
You have to understand that pacing means undershooting your best performance.
It means doing things without exertion.
How to apply that to article writing?
Find out your peak performance by measuring how many articles you can write in a week. Then and slowing down from there.
If you can write two articles a week comfortably, then write one article a week. This is the exact opposite of pushing yourself to do your best. It never works in the long run. And you reach your exhaustion point very soon. Once you are tired or burnt out, it takes a long time to recover.
Besides, your mind stores the unpleasant memory, and resistance develops, which is again very hard to overcome.
Pacing is all about understanding your capabilities and managing your energy.
Tom Kuegler, a well-established Medium writer, wrote an article last week saying he will quit online writing one day because he is tired. I don’t blame him; he has been writing five articles a week for many years.
So what is the antidote?
Whenever you feel like sprinting, think of Hare and Tortise’s story.
Whenever you feel like racing to achieve your goal, think of Amundsen and pace yourself.
Understand that pacing about managing your energy—it about knowing your best performance and doing less than that. Only then will you be able to do it consistently.
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Stories courtesy of Ankesh Kothari of Zenstrategies.
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