The power of pacing

Pacing is an energy-management technique that can help people with visible and non-visible disabilities to do more in their everyday lives, including in busy university jobs. Here, Meredith Wilkinson and Imogen Varle offer their top tips for putting it into practice


De Montfort University
28 Mar 2024
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Man using a standing desk to work
image credit: iStock/mapo.

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We are two staff working in different areas of the university. One of us is an academic member of staff and one of us works in professional services within the well-being team. We have different disabilities; one has a visual impairment and the other has non-visible and chronic conditions. While the visual impairment is visible, features such as fatigue, light sensitivity and sensory overload are not. 

We need techniques to balance our medical conditions with our everyday lives, including our university jobs. A method we have both used is pacing. 

In this article, we outline what pacing is, explain how it can be used for visible and invisible disabilities, and give our top tips for pacing. 

What is pacing? 

The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) 2021 guidelines describe pacing as an energy-management technique. Pacing aims to manage energy and rest, enabling people to balance activities with their health. In essence, it is a self-management technique that individuals develop over time with a degree of trial and error. It enables people to get an awareness of their energy levels and limitations. While it takes a level of self-control and experimentation, pacing should eventually result in people being able to do more

Given the self-management nature of pacing and the fact that everyone is different, people will have different strategies for putting it into practice. For example, when considering chronic pain conditions such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, fibromyalgia and arthritis, individuals may find that activities such as prolonged periods of typing while seated can exacerbate their pain. Therefore, they might set a goal to sit for one hour and then stand for the next hour. If standing is not feasible (for instance, if they do not yet have accommodations like a sit-to-stand desk), they could pace themselves by doing five minutes of stretches for every hour of continuous work.

Pacing for visible and invisible disabilities 

The concept of pacing was first developed for individuals with chronic pain conditions, but it can be applied to a range of disabilities. For visible disabilities such as sight loss, pacing can be used to manage fatigue and pain. It can also be used as a strategy for pain management in other visible conditions relating to mobility.

Pacing is not usually applied to conditions such as visual impairment, but we believe there is much to be gained from this strategy. A person with a visual impairment might factor breaks into their reading, for example, to prevent their eyes becoming too fatigued and as a result be able to work more effectively later. This means the individual needs to be able to judge when they are getting tired, and when to stop and and then resume work. While a level of frustration might come with needing to take a break, the aim of this pacing is to enable the individual to work better later.  

For individuals with non-visible disabilities, such as chronic pain, the strategy of pacing may involve considering their pain and energy levels to determine the most suitable times for activities. For example, if tasks requiring intense concentration exacerbate fatigue or discomfort, scheduling these tasks during a person’s peak energy periods can enhance productivity and reduce strain. Additionally, incorporating short, frequent breaks throughout the day can help manage energy levels and prevent overexertion. This approach allows for sustained productivity while still accommodating the individual’s health needs. 

Top tips for pacing 

  1. It takes time to find the right pace. If you are starting with pacing, and you find it is taking time to get it right, don’t be disheartened. There is a degree of trial and error. Tips that we’ve found useful include sharing your experience with others who may be more experienced at it and keeping a diary of your experiences. 
  2. Don’t be frustrated if your pacing discipline drops off. Academia is a busy environment to work in. While we set out to pace, we may have intense periods of work demands which make it less easy to do so. 
  3. Talk to colleagues. If you have started pacing, it is good to tell your colleagues about it. This is so they understand if you cannot make a meeting or need more time for a deadline. We would also encourage you to talk to your line manager or PhD supervisor so they can support you in this. 
  4. Seek support from fellow pacers. When the first author decided to give pacing a go, they sought support from the second author. This was decided based on their wanting to get better at managing their visual impairment with their life. This enabled them to have some idea of what it was and gain tips and tricks. 
  5. Your body knows what it needs. One of the hardest things for anyone with a disability, visible or invisible, is that sometimes the body wants its say (even when we don’t want it to). Listen to your body, and respect your health boundaries. 
  6. Branch out. Remember, if pacing does not work for you, a range of other energy-expenditure tools is out there for those with chronic conditions. For instance, you could consider the well-known tool Spoon Theory. 

Pacing is a useful technique for management of visible and invisible disabilities. Both authors have used pacing in their daily lives for different medical conditions, and it has improved both their lives. For the first author, it has helped balance their visual impairment with their work. For the second, it has helped them to thrive despite the barriers of pain and fatigue. 

Meredith Wilkinson is senior lecturer in psychology in the School of Applied Social Sciences and co-chair of the DisAbility and Well-being Network (Dawn) at De Montfort University. Imogen Varle is a mental health intervention officer at De Montfort University, author and writer at HNDL magazine.

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