How Tiny, Unconscious Habits Can Lead to a World of Pain
14 Sept 2018
“Look after yourself,” suggests a well-meaning friend.
“Um, thanks…” I respond—but privately, I bristle. What else am I going to do?! Not look after myself?
And yet… I absolutely need to be told this, because every single day I fail to take care of myself through dozens of poor, tiny decisions.
The Catalyst: Ouch
This May I experienced the worst neck pain I’d ever felt; so agonising that I looked back fondly on the time when I’d merely had all four wisdom teeth extracted at once.
And, just like every injury I’ve ever experienced, this pain occurred for stupid reasons.
(Other past reasons have included: a banana, a gentle pre-game warmup, and a fishfinger.)
(Not all at the same time.)
As usual, I didn’t hurt myself trying anything flashy or cool, I simply existed. Many small factors added up: Months of poor posture. Too many days hunched over a keyboard. Not enough breaks. Accidentally sleeping in a weird position. Ignoring warning signs. Over-exercising. Not respecting the recovery.
If I’d handled any of these differently, then I might have had a slightly stiff neck for a day or two. But all together these little factors sent me desperately crawling to a doctor for a cocktail of (extremely welcome) painkillers.
Small Things, Important Things
After a bad experience like this, I’m always highly motivated to prevent anything similar happening again.
But what changes are there to make after an injury without a clear, single cause?
Perhaps if I’d been testing home-made human wings, there would be an obvious lesson: find another volunteer to test them first don’t attempt that at all. But what’s the best way to address many factors which are individually not a big deal?
I suppose the good news is that this means I don’t need to make any big changes. Simply taking occasional breaks to stretch would likely have prevented this. Is it worth putting in that extra effort to avoid a fortnight of agony? Absolutely, yes.
Unfortunately, there’s some corresponding bad news: in some ways it’s harder to make such tiny changes to our habits. These behaviours built up over time because I fundamentally didn’t value good posture enough to put in even this minimal effort. I need to change my underlying values in order for a new habit to stick.
Luckily, recent events have very much convinced me of the value of good posture, so it’s been easy to motivate myself to act on this change in values. There’s two parts to this action: 1) notice when I’m doing something small that will come back to bite me later, and 2) to do it differently.
Could I Have Done This in Advance?
Having learned a painful lesson, changed my underlying value, and taken action to make the new habit stick is all very well. This particular problem hopefully won’t recur… but what about preventing it in the first place?
Could I have known in advance that these poor work habits were going to have painful consequences – and soon?
Honestly, I’m not sure. It’s not as if I didn’t know I ought to take breaks and work more healthily. I just didn’t believe that the consequences could be so severe and so rapid.
Perhaps I ought to generalise the lesson: it’s not enough just to stop this particular pain from recurring. Are there any other little decisions I’m making which may have consequences later?
Small Decisions Matter Everywhere
Indeed, there are lots of areas beyond health which operate like this. Small decisions add up in every area of our lives.
If you were feeling poetic, you could make a good argument that our lives are nothing but an endless succession of little choices. Every day I have to decide whether I should I take a proper lunch break, to socialise and recharge, or to skip lunch entirely and squeeze in more work.
I wouldn’t consciously choose to prioritise work over loved ones, but thousands of tiny unconscious choices of an hour here, an hour there, can mean exactly that. Whatever we choose in small matters adds up and morph into habits, and these habits form our true decisions about how we spend our lives.
All habits become invisible to us very quickly. For example, I barely notice my morning routine anymore – it just happens. And unless I consciously recognise what I’m doing, and put in the effort to change it, it will continue just the same.
Ideally, I would pay attention to as many little decisions as possible, and try to make a habit of varying them so I keep my habits comfortably balanced.
The Flip Side
However! Before we all dash off to do the opposite of everything we normally do, remember that the opposite of a bad idea is often a different bad idea.
In this case, the opposite of “constantly ignoring a tiny problem until it adds up to a big one” is “needlessly monotoring ourselves to get every tiny decision exactly right.”
Needless self-criticism is an easy trap to fall into, especially if–like me!–you’re prone to anxiety and perfectionism. But there’s no need to fall into a funk every time we fall short of perfection. Perhaps I worked a whole day today without taking a break. That’s fine. I’ll just have to try harder to remember tomorrow.
I’m aiming to live in a comfortable medium: being conscious of tiny decisions and trying to make better ones, but without expecting perfection.
What Small Decisions Do You Make Every Day?
It might be worth considering what habits you are currently building through small daily decisions. Is there anything you’re neglecting? Or something you’re choosing every time which might be a better option only sometimes? How about your balance of priorities: are you unconsciously spending less time on aspects of your life that matter to you?
When it comes to making a change, remember that it won’t stick unless it flows from your underlying values: what values are you promoting through the decisions you make?
Change doesn’t have to be a big deal, but replacing even one habitual small decision with a better one might save you a world of pain in the future.
Oh, and take it from me: if you’re working at a desk, stretch more often.
This article was originally written for Puttylike
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.
Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."
He would like it if you said hello.