I was a Girl Guide once. Not for very long, but there were a few things I learned there that have stayed with me as useful for life. Last time, I talked about badges and volunteering. Here’s the second post in the mini-series where I talk about Scout’s Pace.
Scout’s pace is a way of covering large distances on foot. You don’t run all the way, because it’s too far and you’d die. You don’t walk all the way, because that’s too slow and you wouldn’t get there on time.
Instead, you run for, say, 100 steps, then walk for 100 steps,then you run for 100 steps, and keep going. You don’t sprint, you just sort of jog along. This has a whole load of benefits.
1. You can keep this up for a long time. Because you have a strict number of steps you run, you stop before you feel tired. If you run until you are starting to get tired, you feel tired. You want to go slower (walk) or take a rest (stop). But Scout’s Pace works because you regularly feel ‘yes, I could run for a bit now’, and when you go back down to a walk you feel ‘yes, I could definitely start running again’.
2. It’s harder to start up into a run from standing still than it is from a walk. Walking between runs keeps up your forward momentum. The actions of your arms and legs and lungs are all very similar between running and walking. You are varying your intensity, but not your actions, your task, or your goal. Vary your work, but keep going.
3. It’s easy to imagine another 100 step walk. Big projects like PhDs are hard to conceptualise, and hard to maintain motivation for. But a series of simple mini-deadlines can help you to focus on the next task, and to get it done.
4. It keeps your work in balance. People either focus so much on writing (which is a high intensity task, like running) that we forget that there is a lot you can do to make your PhD move forward in the walking phases. Or they spend too much time walking, and never step it up to write. You need both. 100 steps of going to the library and returning your overdue books; reading the style guide to resolve that nagging question about film titles; consulting your field notes. Then 100 steps of writing a draft of the introduction; or carrying out your experiment; or giving a conference paper.
5. It quantifies your progress. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like you got anywhere much. You feel like you were just plodding along. But when you count it up, you ran hundreds of steps today. This is validating. You know you are working hard. Of course you can’t see the finish line yet, that’s years away, but you can see what progress you made since this morning.
Finally, Scout’s Pace can take you a long way, but it won’t take you forever. In a three year project, you will get there if you run for 40-50 hours a week. You can’t, and you shouldn’t, attempt to work 24/7, or you’ll quickly find yourself, burned out, injured, exhausted or lost.
You can’t sprint a PhD, and you can’t walk it. Just put in a full week’s work of Scout’s Pace and after about three years, you should get where you need to be.
(However, if you have a sports injury, are hit by a vehicle, someone stole your map, or any of the other misadventures that can happen to doctoral candidates, for goodness sake, stop running and go get help. That’s what we’re here for.)