Your best work is just a few paces away

Sprint Stroll Stride

“When it comes to creative work, I have a pace in mind. But lately, about the only pacing I’m doing is back and forth in my shop.”

My brother Paul said this to me and our sister Norma yesterday. His comment was in the context of our “Sibling Discovery” discussion—a videoconference we’ve been holding every month for 7½ years without a miss.

You see, all three of us are full-time artists, making a living from our own creative output. The meetings are a way for us to support and encourage one another. To spur the conversation, we usually ruminate on a word or phrase for the month. Sometimes, we come together with radically different perspectives on the prompt. But this time, responding to the word “pacing,” we found ourselves in a unison chorus of “Same here!”

Pacing—the rate at which you move or work or make progress—is important for anyone focused on getting things done … and done well.

How do you find the right pace?

In my experience, that takes some doing.

Literally: doing.

Doing fast. Doing slow. Doing together. Doing alone. Doing in spurts. Doing in a long, slow, luxurious flow. By varying and experimenting with your pace, you can stitch together the process that works best for you.

Paul and I are both notorious (and surprisingly successful) procrastinators. Fueled by adrenaline, we regularly race the clock toward looming deadlines. Norma? No way. She starts early not just to assure an on-time finish, but also to preserve her sanity.

“I can’t do my best work when I’m frantic,” she said.

The thing is, while procrastinating might make Norma feel frantic, it doesn’t have that effect on me. Yes, I do push projects down the to-do list, squeezing them closer and closer to their due dates—but never so close that I shortchange the pace required at each stage of the work.

Having this conversation made me realize that my best work involves three different paces:

Sprinting. Strolling. Striding.

Sprinting gets ideas out of my head and into the open, where I can see and use them. Set a timer for three to five minutes, and I’ll crank out a shitty first draft, sketch a messy outline, or scribble a jumbled mind map. This is more a physical process than a mental one. I can’t think too hard about it; I just need to go. The result: raw material, rapidly produced and ready for the next step.

Strolling lets my mind catch up to the ideas I’ve generated. Usually, I stroll away from the work, to get some distance from it. I’ll leave my desk and have lunch with my husband, for instance, inviting him to talk about his day, not mine. But sometimes I stroll with the work. After quickly drafting this post, for instance, I wandered up to my closet to look at the various shoes I wear for sprinting, strolling, and striding. That little field trip inspired the image I’ll put atop this post, as well as a few phrases I’ve worked in while editing.

Striding is the focused, purposeful work it takes to give my ideas shape and order. When I’m developing a written piece, this typically involves a solid hour of editing and revision, then a collaborative review session with someone who will read my work aloud, so I can hear how it sounds. If I’m working on a presentation, this is when I rehearse. Out loud, on my feet, with feeling.

For me, generating ideas requires a fast pace. Not frantic or panicked, but quick. Fast sprints give me a head start on the work. Regenerating those ideas—transforming them into my best work—calls for a slower, more deliberate process. Through a combination of leisurely strolls and deliberate strides, I reach the finish line.

What’s your process? Do you work at a steady pace from start to finish? Or do you vary your steps as I do?

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