Pacing Yourself

This article forms part of a series where the benefit of hindsight over a long career allows me to dare to offer advice to younger entrepreneurs and managers. As my responses are often prompted by a query I have received, I find that each input has a better guarantee of being timely, relevant and of good reflective quality – all objectives in my content strategy. In this way they seem to meet a wider concern than just that of the person who asked the question in the first place.

I lost three jobs in a row in my forties, two because of my own poor management abilities. This was a most salutary experience and made me a better manager.

It seems to me to be the case that the leadership provided by high-performing individuals, who deliver to task like ourselves, often mistakenly identifies them as potential managers. I suppose advancement at this stage in a career can only be offered via some management position and so we get flattered by the offer of more responsibility, only to find ourselves promoted beyond our true management abilities. Divorced from project delivery, our leadership mysteriously starts to disappoint.
Subsequent to these painful moments, I obsessed about guru business management techniques, trying to get my head round methods that would improve what I had been made to feel guiltily was a failure of performance. As a creative, it was true that my butterfly approach was ill-adapted to the general need for structure and I made myself feel that my core deficiency was poor time management. However, your use of the word “pacing” has prompted me to revisit that early obsession and revise the terminology, because I think I meant pacing, when the only terms being offered at the time were time or stress management.
1. I suppose my first observation would be that I was underusing the particular advantage that experience brings to managing the workload: doing things automatically. We all know that one about getting to a destination via the motorway and worryingly not having much memory of the actual journey. At the root of this lies the automatic pilot, somehow knowing that you are so sure about what to do that you can concentrate on something else whilst executing those other familiar gestures beneath.
Experience develops our instinct for what is right in and for our own situation, but getting to trust that instinct is a big hurdle. It requires self-confidence and giving proper value to experience, and it has taken me an age to achieve. For me, pacing describes that zone between automatic pilot and a more connected consciousness, be it social or intellectual. We can’t hold everything at a top level of consciousness all of the time; it is far too exhausting and there is clear advantage in transferring the execution of certain tasks to our autopilot. Thus may we gain space for those issues that do require our specific and less divided attention. This seems to me to be a core tenet of pacing.
2. Another thing I learned, this time pretty early on, was to distinguish between hard work and what you might call flurries of activity. Being in a hurry does not mean one is particularly industrious. They do say no-one reaches the end of their working life wishing they had put more time in at the office, although it is pretty noticeable, particularly to women, how we men are much more likely to forego pleasure than productivity.
When he was growing up, my son always reminded me of the need to conserve some energy for his playtime, whatever my day. He thus provided a very useful tempering effect on my work rhythms. I would rarely get home before 7, when he would immediately jump on me and say: “So what are we going to do now?” My only thought was to flop down and rest, but he had been waiting since coming out of school at 3.15, and bedtime was 7.30 and fast approaching! I dealt with that one first by understanding and respecting his need to spend leisure time with me, but also by accepting that he was expecting me to come up with good ideas for our joint activities and not of the type his mother would suggest.
So I deliberately got up a mental list of things to do with him when I got home. I did not have to feel that I was the only thing in his life, but it helped me make sure that I was contributing something he was not getting somewhere else. We would cook, pond dip, cycle, garden, play cars, hit a shuttlecock or two etc.
3. Just to keep me on track, around about that time I had a colleague at work who told a delightful story against himself. His young daughter, impatiently waiting her Dad’s return from work one evening (we Dads are many in the same boat), asked her Mum why Daddy always brought papers home from work. To which the mother replied that he did not have time to finish them at work and so he had to bring them home. The daughter’s response to this was: So why don’t they put him in a lower group?
From that day on I never brought work home. I simply had to decide it and manage the consequences whatever!
4. The other image that comes to mind when discussing pacing comes of course from running. When my wife took this up again she was put on a strict regime of one minute run, three minutes walk, one minute run, three minutes walk etc, gradually increasing the tempo over the weeks until she could run continuously. But even now, as she prepares for a half marathon, she has to conserve her energy so that it lasts the full race. Too brisk a start, too unsustainable a rhythm, will compromise her ability to complete the course. Note I did not say “win the race”… which is what us blokes would be focussing on isn’t it?
5. Better pacing at work can be brought about by such tricks as:
1. Breaking up your day between blocks of calm and frenzy. I learned to go out for a ten minute walk round the local park when it got too tough. This was quite enough time to slow me down, calm me down, without using up so much time as to panic me that I would not get “it” done.
I would also, somewhat perniciously, fix to meet old friends for a drink at 6, which got me out of the office for an extra hour’s pleasure, even if sometimes dangerously inconvenient.
2. Not procrastinating. I had heard that most difficult phone calls are made just before 5 on a Friday, so I deliberately chose to do them straight away. And I didn’t want to signal to people that I phoned before 5 on a Friday that I was finding the call difficult! It was not too much of an extension to then do all the difficult things first off so that they did not hang over me during the rest of the working day. I still do this. You know what they say: never handle a piece of paper (read an email) twice etc…
3. Other obvious things in this list for me would be:
Be creative about the priorities. A lot of tedious middle managers live or die by imposing a call to prioritise. The more proactive of us know that we will never gain control of the priorities since these are often imposed by outside events and agencies. This took me ages to get right, as it really is not my instinct. But thanks to a colleague, who could only do her job properly if I delivered this, I finally made it work.
Throw away the to-do list. Quite apart from the obvious truth that it takes precious time away from completing one’s to-dos just to compile the list of to-dos that are to be completed, I have found that few things are actually required to be done as and when I think they are. Maybe test this out on a few small ones to start, but then get daring.
I found to-do lists just grow, each day adding yet more to lie on the list reproaching me every morning with my apparent lack of achievement. This happens because we must remain ever-responsive to the dynamic situations in our work so the very list which lies so reproachfully incomplete actually hides the true achievements of the day, an unwritten list of many completed tasks that could not be predicted. Because none of those tasks were on the list at the beginning of our day – nor did we have time to compile it as we galloped through – we then undervalue hugely our true contribution to our working environment.
I have abandoned to-do lists all together, in favour of one organic checklist to serve as a mnemonic for my ageing brain!
Say Yes but… In my line of business saying no is a non-starter: you lose advantage, opportunity and clients. Yes but… can be a life-saver. What it means of course is this: get it done but by delegating. This is just an extension of the game Pass the Monkey I know (or Throw the Hot Potato), but it works.
Walk into your colleague’s office. An odd hierarchy has developed since the arrival of email which I still find myself participating in: the preferred method of internal communication has become to send an email. The argument for this runs that it is superior to the phone call because, instead of reacting to voicemail, you remain proactive and lodge the request in your colleague’s inbox for him or her to pick up at their convenience. (But leave it too long and none of this stops some of my contacts from sending me a second email asking if I got the first one of course!)
The second method is to pick up the phone. I do this too little and I am often surprised at the speed and quality of the results, because it is an interactive means of communication.
But we actually do get better and more lasting resolution of problems through real face to face communication rather than either of the above. I had too many colleagues who would send an email when sitting in the next office to me! In my experience the great weakness of the email conversation is its inability to transmit tone, and so it ends up a kind of communication that slows down understanding, lop-sided and open to confused interpretation.
• Organise your desk to allow you to complete projects before time wherever possible. Some say keep your desk clear, but that seems hardly realistic; ordered would be a better ad/objective.
I had a colleague who irritated me by putting all her projects in plastic folders in neat rows on her desk: she was duplicating data from the central file, how could we hope to audit the results? With as many as 40 folders on the top at a time it was far from a clear desk, but she was a visual. She had to see the workload spread out in front of her before being able to tackle any of it, driven as she was by the fear of forgetting if it remained invisible in a drawer. The scheme enabled her to select the right one and work on just that, while all the others sat there waiting their turn but comfortingly still within her peripheral vision.
• Cut and paste has been a real boon, though I accept the difficulties it presents with regard to plagiarism. But, contrary to what seems to have become accepted wisdom, plagiarising yourself is intelligent. Certainly remain aware that what you are preparing today could well be used again tomorrow in some other context. Re-use old work to save time, every time.
Block time for yourself into your diary; I learned to do this rather late on, but it worked.
At some point in the office-bound part of my career, it dawned on me that my diary quite naturally was getting blocked out into multiples of 15 minutes. This was a great comfort and very manageable, assisting me on my way through the busiest of times. For example, most meetings would reach a natural conclusion after two or three of these periods, and one could easily see how going into the fourth quarter hour was going to be really inefficient.
Being conscious of these human-sized 15 minutes blocks also helped me plan for proper time to transfer between events. Even later, to my shame, it dawned on me that it really helped me pace my workload, if I also actually entered into the diary multiple swathes of this time to keep me free for a big project or just for having down-time – a bit like that mini trip you deliberately took recently as a breather, but in smaller chunks.
The idea of actually writing myself into my diary seemed strange to begin with, but it really helped regulate my work pattern and I got particularly good at the 10-minute me-slot as I mentioned above. With a couple of minutes to get away from the office and a couple of minutes to get back, ten minutes took me round the park, browsing a bookshop or having a quick coffee in the local caff.
A stressed-out PA, who did not last long in the job herself, wrongly labelled this as stress management, another of those guilt-inducing management guru labels. But thanks to your introduction of the word, I can now see that this was actually a simple pacing technique, removing me just enough from the office grind to take time to reflect, to give pause for thought as they say. And, as we know, in the lifecycle of a project, this is the most neglected element yet the most crucial to success.
• Finally, do try to get things done ahead of time. This is a hopeless objective for those motivated by deadlines like my wife, but useful if you can do it, even if it is only sometimes.
We often know some way in advance that there is a document to produce, a report to write, a position paper to construct, a conference speech to prepare. I now deliberately complete these earlier than absolutely necessary, as I see it as another way of creating breathing space, again achieved by actually putting myself in the diary.
I do hope all that helps you on your way to another KPI!
(The basic structure of this post comes from another post on this issue but I have lost the reference. If you recognise this structure as yours please let me know and I can credit you! Thanks.) 

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