pacing FAQs

Among the ME/CFS community it’s a bit of a running joke that so often you are told to ‘just learn to pace yourself’. It’s usually meant well, but rarely followed by ‘. . . and here’s how you actually pace’. Many people have, then, been left to figure it all out on their own, making mistakes and causing a flare-up in symptoms or, in some cases, increasing the overall severity of their condition.

I’ve tried to provide in Pace Yourself a full, but hopefully not overwhelming, framework for pacing. Still, I know there will be some questions about the practicality of pacing and how you might solve some common problems. This FAQ
should help, but if you do have any specific queries about pacing please do get in touch with me. I’ll update this page when new questions come in.

How do I decide what should be included in my vital pace?

Getting your vital pace (or baseline) right is crucial, but I appreciate that it is also one of the most difficult parts of pacing! It may take a while for you to find the right balance of activity and rest, so don’t give up if your first attempt is too intense or too light.

Generally, I’d say it’s better to err on the side of including too little in your vital pace than too much, especially if you have a condition that is made worse by overexertion or excess stress.

When considering whether an activity belongs in your vital pace, you might try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does this activity satisfy a biological or physiological need for myself or someone dependent on me?
  • Will my income or financial security be directly threatened if I don’t do this activity for the next two weeks?
  • Can this activity be postponed until I am ready to pace up, or does it absolutely have to occur within my vital pace?
  • Is there a way I can lessen the energy demands of this activity?
  • Can I effectively delegate this activity to someone else and put it out of my mind so that it doesn’t continue using up my energy?
  • Am I considering including this activity in my vital pace just because I am worried about what people will say or think if I don’t do it for the next couple of weeks?

Your vital pace should be an opportunity for your mind and body to rest. Think of it a bit like a ‘battery-saving mode’, where only the most essential activities are allowed to use your energy.

Remember that adjusting your standards and setting boundaries is as important as choosing the right activities to prioritise. It’s likely that your high standards and productivity-over-rest attitude contributed to your boom-and-
bust lifestyle and feelings of fatigue. If you really want to set yourself a new pace of life, you’ll need to first let go of your unrealistic expectations for your own energy.

When can I start ‘pacing up’?

Everyone’s pacing timeline is different, so I’m afraid there is no strict schedule I can give you. You might feel ready to do more after just two weeks of your vital pace, or it may be months before you’re able to add in even one extra activity. The key will be noticing that the activities in your vital pace are becoming easier and less energy-intensive. You might find that, at the end of the day, you feel you still have energy left to use. If this happens every day for a week or more, then you can try pacing up.

Don’t be tempted to add in lots more activity in one go, or you’ll put yourself straight back on the boom-and-bust rollercoaster. Pacing up is a steady, gradual process that should be enjoyable and rewarding, not pressurised and stressful. There is no deadline, no ‘perfect pace’ to compare yourself to.

Some people rush to pace up because they find their vital pace uncomfortable. It’s natural to feel this way, though, after running through life at top speed for as long as you can remember. One of the things your vital pace offers is a chance to re-evaluate your beliefs about productivity and
success, so that when you do begin pacing up, you don’t fall back into a boom-and-bust pattern.

You might, on the other hand, feel reluctant to pace up. This is also common, especially if you have a condition with symptoms that fluctuate. Remember that you can always return to your vital pace if you feel like you are losing control over your energy levels or have taken on too much, too soon. There is no shame in taking a step back now so that you can move forward at your own pace later.

How do I explain to my friends/family/colleagues that I am pacing?

Pacing affects the people around you in the same way that others’ actions and needs affect your energy levels. It’s important that you have conversations about your new pace of life and the impacts it may have on your relationships.

I would start by explaining why you are pacing. What has led you to reconsider how you use your energy? The people closest to you might know that you’ve been feeling exhausted, but do they understand why? Try not to assign blame when explaining the boom-and-bust of your previous lifestyle – what matters isn’t that your boss always demanded too much of your mental energy or that one of your friends is emotionally draining, it’s that you have set yourself new boundaries that mean you’ll be more deliberate about your energy use. This, of course, might mean that your boss will have to get used to it when you firmly but reasonably decline to regularly stay later than your set hours, or that your friend will find some conversations paused before they get too exhausting. Explaining why you’ve set these new boundaries will help others accept them.

You’ll also want to explain the benefits of your new lifestyle to your existing relationships. Your new understanding of cognitive effort means you’ll be able to work more efficiently and because you’re less fatigued you’ll perform better within your working hours. You’ll also be able to better empathise with your friend, knowing that if a conversation about their own life and problems uses your emotional energy, it’s likely to be draining a lot of theirs, too.

Finally, remind them of what hasn’t changed. Tell your colleagues that you still enjoy the work you do together and that you value their support. Explain to your family that you love them, and any changes to the amount of energy you put into certain activities are out of respect for yourself, not disrespect toward them. Humans have a tendency to avoid or reject change, especially if there is a lot of uncertainty around the reason for the change or concerns about its validity. Knowing this, try to be as open as you can about the reasons for your new pace of life.

The conversation may turn to their feelings of fatigue or energy. If they think that to rest is to waste time, or that the only worthwhile use of energy is an activity that generates income or leads to ‘success’, they’ll find it difficult to align your new pace of life with their beliefs. It may be that they’re struggling with feelings of exhaustion themselves but have the mindset that you should just ‘push through it’. If you feel you have the energy, you could try to help them see how it’s possible to lead a more balanced life, but know that you’re under no obligation to do so.

I find resting frustrating. How can I find ways to rest that are enjoyable?

There are so many different ways to rest that there are bound to be some activities you’ll find enjoyable. But I think it’s important to ask yourself, why do I find rest frustrating?

Do you still believe that you should spend as much time as possible being productive? And do you still consider rest to be unproductive? In that case, you’ll feel very much like any time spent resting is wasteful, possibly even lazy. But I urge you to think of rest in a different way. As food and drink and sleep provide you with energy, so does rest. Do you consider your mealtimes unproductive, so much so that you avoid eating until you’re forced to? Is sleeping so unproductive that you refuse to go to bed until you’re falling asleep at your desk? No. Nor should you postpone rest until you are burned out.

It might be that resting makes you anxious, because you feel like your never-ending to-do list is simply growing in the background, waiting for you. The stress of the piling demands is likely seeping into your resting mind, making you worry and using up emotional energy. If this is the case, your attempts to rest are unlikely to feel restful at all. There are a few different ways I try to tackle this problem – which I still do face, from time to time! You might try finding a restful activity that occupies your mind, like an engaging TV show or a crossword puzzle. I find it better to avoid mindfulness or mindlessness activities at these times, because they’re not distracting enough to stop my
ruminating thoughts. You could also attach one of the to-do list tasks to your resting, for example by promising ‘I will only do the washing up once I have spent ten minutes resting’. This helps me feel confident that the task will get
done and stops me spending my rest time thinking about which of the many tasks I should do next.

Sometimes, resting feels frustrating because we believe we are the only ones who have to do it. Our social media feeds are full of work achievements, life events, holidays and side hustles (another reason not to use social media as
a rest activity). I promise you, everyone needs rest. Those who avoid it are only going to burn themselves out in the long run.

Make sure there are activities in your Rest Bank that are fun and enjoyable, but don’t avoid a particular type of rest just because it isn’t exciting. It can be good to build a tolerance for things that are calm rather than exhilarating, to learn how to be still instead of always chasing a thrill.

How do I set boundaries around my energy use?

Setting – and enforcing – boundaries isn’t easy, especially if you’ve spent a long time saying ‘yes’ to everything and letting everyone except yourself get a say in how your energy is used.

Hopefully, Pace Yourself has given you some ideas for the kinds of boundaries you might put in place. If your pacing diary revealed that most of your feelings of fatigue directly follow the times when you spend a lot of emotional energy solving others’ problems, it indicates that you probably need to restrict how this energy is used. Or, you might have noticed that you tend to over-commit to new fitness programmes, pushing your body to physical exhaustion instead of gradually doing more exercise – in this case, you need to set yourself a boundary.

When you’ve identified some boundaries, it’s important that you communicate them clearly to the people around you. You may think that they’re obvious, that they don’t need stating, but people aren’t always very attuned to what matters to others. If it’s taken us a lot of effort to realise what our boundaries are, how can we expect anyone else to know them without our input?

Despite all best efforts, however, sometimes boundaries have to be crossed. Compromises will need to be made. If you’ve had to be flexible on one occasion, don’t consider this a failure on your part or a lack of self-respect. Instead, reflect on what you’ve learned about the boundary itself. Does it need adjusting? Were you surprised by the way you felt after the compromise? Do you need to better explain your boundary so that it isn’t ignored in future?

How do I know if I’m doing too much, too soon?

It’s perfectly normal to feel tired after a busy day, or to want to rest more some days than others – I love a weekend spent at home, doing very little, reading a good book and binge-watching Gilmore Girls. Ideally, you want to have a good balance of activity and rest across each day, but that doesn’t
mean every day has to be the same.

However, if your day-to-day activities are unsustainable and you find yourself back in a boom-and-bust pattern, needing to cancel plans and spend a lot more time resting to make up for overexertion the previous day, then you’re
probably doing more than you should be. Remember the quote about pacing from Chapter Eight: ‘I used to take two steps forward and three steps back, and now I take one step at a time.’

Help! I’ve had a relapse/my symptoms are worse, what do I do?

Relapsing is a scary, difficult thing to deal with. Sometimes there is a clear cause – I think my worst relapse was a result of very low levels of vitamin D, though I’ll never know for certain – but there isn’t always an explanation.

When any of my symptoms get suddenly worse, or new symptoms appear, I always see my GP just to check that there isn’t anything else going on.

Then I go back to my vital pace. The amount of activity I include depends on the severity of my relapse, but I try to remind myself that this pace is temporary. I know I can pace up in the future, when I am ready.

Still, after my relapse it took some time for me to come to terms with the change in my energy levels and to accept that, for now, I’d have to reduce my hours at work and the time I spent with friends. I felt real grief at the unwanted change to my pace of life.

I think the thing that helped me most was the support of my family and of the ME/CFS community I found online. Whatever your illness, I’m sure there are charities or Facebook groups designed to help people like you. Sharing problems with strangers felt a little awkward at first, but I’m extremely grateful to have had a safe, supportive place to turn to.

Is it possible to pace during big life events?

I’ve had ME/CFS for over a decade. In that time I’ve graduated from university, moved homes, lived through a pandemic and got married. I really believe none of those things would have happened if I hadn’t learned to pace
myself, and how to adapt that pace when needed.

Predictable life events are easier to pace. In the run-up to my wedding, I was very careful not to over-exert myself, but I also made sure that I was gradually using more physical energy, pacing up and toward the activity I was most looking forward to: dancing with my husband and our friends to our favourite music. I spent so much time on the dancefloor that night, I missed the arrival of a lot of evening guests! Sure, my legs hurt the next morning and I only just made it in time for the serving of breakfast, but I had avoided the dreaded post-exertional malaise.

When big events suddenly arise, it can be much harder to control your activity and thus your energy levels. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself moving at a boom-and-bust pace just to keep up with the changes in your situation. In these cases, noticing your feelings of energy is key to avoiding burnout and overwhelming exhaustion. Take rest wherever you can and try to reduce the energy demands of your activity as much as possible. If you have to lower your standards during this time to stop yourself from burning out, do so.

What tools or equipment will help me pace myself?

Some people like to use technology to help them pace, while others prefer nothing more than a pen and paper. It’s worth experimenting with different options to figure out what works best for you.

When keeping a pacing diary you could try using a calendar app to log every activity, along with notes about its impact on your energy levels. I like to use a timer app called Toggl to track how long I spend doing one activity, then I write this down in a physical diary with some information about my feelings of energy. I choose to create my own diary in a dotted notebook, a bit like a bullet journal (if you haven’t heard of bullet journaling, search the term
on Google or social media, but be warned, you may end up spending a lot of money on highlighters and brush pens!).

I have started experimenting with keeping a verbal diary, recording my thoughts for the day on my phone’s voice note app. It isn’t a particularly useful way to see trends in my energy use, mainly because I really don’t like listening
to the sound of my own voice, but I’ve found it a good way to explore ideas and talk through feelings before I make a note of them elsewhere.

I use the same physical notebook when designing my pace of life and to keep track of my goals and milestones.

You don’t have to keep an ongoing diary in order to pace. If you find it easier to go about your life without planning each activity or writing down every time you feel fatigued, that’s fine too. Pacing is just about having a healthy balance between your energy and your activity – how you achieve that is really up to you.

I know I’m in a boom-and-bust lifestyle, but isn’t the boom worth the bust?

In the beginning, maybe. The first few times you go on the boom-and-bust rollercoaster, the bust is generally minimal. You might not even notice it, because you’re still feeling the excitement and thrill of the boom.

But you’ve bought Pace Yourself for a reason. You know your current pace of life is unsustainable.

The thing is, when we’re climbing the boom, we’re only looking up. We don’t see what’s being left behind – the weeknights and weekends that suffer, the time with your family and friends, your own health and wellbeing – nor do we see the inevitable drop that awaits. We’re too busy looking at the bright blue sky above us.

When you spend so long staring at the summit, you can’t help imagining how you’ll feel when you reach it. It will all be worth it, when you get to the top, you think. All that matters is being there, looking out, knowing you achieved
what you set out to do.

If, for a brief moment, we do consider what happens after, we tell ourselves that this time, there will be no bust. This time, the high will remain. This goal, we tell ourselves, is the one that will change the pace of our lives. This achievement will flatten the track and we’ll stay at this level of happiness,
of success, from now on.

It won’t. The only way to prevent the rollercoaster from descending is to step off the ride.