How to Learn Pacing

Pacing is a soft skill that enables you to adjust your level of productivity to something you can maintain indefinitely.

Learning how to only take on as much work as you can reasonably handle is your primary defense against burnout. When you allow yourself to become burned out, your productivity drops to zero or worse yet – the work you produce is of such poor quality, it will eventually have to be redone. Your goal in taking on no more work than you can handle is not to work less, but to work more consistently and, in turn, increase your long-term productivity. 

Companies place ever-increasing demands on their employees for more productivity but offer little-to-no guidance on how this can be achieved. As contemporary management practices are based on a philosophy of only focusing on what you can measure, the road to more productivity is stated to be:

  • More hours worked
  • More people working
  • More units of work produced per unit time

In the industrial era, where people were factory workers whose jobs were defined by roles, and two people serving the same role were indistinguishable from each other, this worked well. Today, with roles having almost no meaning whatsoever, units of work that are impossible to consistently define, and the creativity of uniquely talented individuals being the primary driver of productivity, there is nothing to measure. Regardless of these facts of the modern work, companies stick to focusing only on what they can measure, ignoring anything they cannot. 

As long as the disconnect between industrial era management practices and the realities of modern work remains, employees will be told to work more hours with more people to produce more units of work per unit time. However, this is a proven recipe that leads to:

  • Inefficiency as more people are told to work on a problem than is necessary, creating a massive communication and decision making burden.
  • Ineffectiveness as the chaos of trying to perform to the same standards of quality and output volume as a machine sap focus and motivation.
  • Burnout as longer hours are worked in inefficient and ineffective environments with no end to the ever-increasing workload insight.

Eventually, competitive pressure will force companies to realize the error of their industrial-era management practices. In the meantime, it is up to individual workers to protect their personal levels of productivity by resisting the pressure to take on more work than they can handle. No matter what management says, it will ultimately be the volume and quality of work you produce that matters in the long term, not how busy and stressed out you might appear at any point in time.

The technique to use to learn how to pace yourself is simple: stop working when you fear you are in danger of burning out. When you burn out, no amount of hours worked after that will be worth very much at all, so your focus must be on not burning out no matter what. Detecting an impending state of burnout is relatively easy if you are mindful of your mood and level of motivation, and it is helpful if you establish a baseline such as your first day back from a restful vacation:

  • Are you motivated to work?
  • Are you excited to take on new challenges?
  • Are you solving problems creatively?
  • Are you happy with the progress you are making?
  • Are you energized by the thought of moving on to your next task?

As these subjective assessments start to fall off one-by-one, you can gauge that you are approaching burnout, and you must resist the urge to keep working – especially if there is an impending deadline. Your approach to deadlines must take a long-view of not only hitting this deadline but every deadline after that. There is little point of burning yourself out to hit one deadline, when you know there is no opportunity to recover before the next. At best, you will deliver lower quality work that you could have to hit the current deadline. At worst, you set yourself up to miss every other deadline as your burnout takes a firm hold and reduces your productivity to the bare minimum required to still keep your job.

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