How Tiny, Unconscious Habits Can Lead to a World of Pain (And How to Prevent This!)
Someone (not Neil) with neck pain, after neglecting his self-care practices.

How Tiny, Unconscious Habits Can Lead to a World of Pain (And How to Prevent This!)

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Self-Care

“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

Last month I experienced the worst neck pain I’d ever felt; so agonizing 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.

As usual, this time 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 socialize and recharge, or to skip lunch entirely and squeeze in more work.

I wouldn’t consciously choose to prioritize 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 recognize 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.

Your Turn

Has a seemingly small habit ever turned out to have a not-so-small consequence? What little changes have you made that had a big impact? Share your stories in the comments!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things 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 found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

12 Comments

  1. Rezvan says:

    Hi Emilie !
    Your words have transformed my life .
    really thank you .
    now Instead of anxiety? i’m so excited
    wooo hooo ! i am a Multipotentialite !:) :) :)

  2. Lesley says:

    Hi Neil, is so easy for me to get so involved in what I am doing (often 5 things at a time on the computer) that I don’t get up and stretch or think about eating or the house work etc. I am honestly thinking of going back to using a timer and a to do list. I use t use the timer to make myself get up and move and do something different every half an hour.
    At work I use to stand at a desk which helps with keeping mobile. I understand what you are saying cause I get pain in the wrist and also sore eyes if I don’t pace myself and switch up my activities.
    I also agree that small decisions really matter… I am off to get a large glass of water, ring my Mum (we spell it like that in Australia) and make a healthy breakfast. Thanks for your reminders because I was definitely becoming a work at home stay at home couch potato.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m really pleased the reminders were helpful, Lesley! I find that mostly what I need is to reminded of good habits – it’s not like I don’t know what’s good for me, I just forget to do it :D (or, like you say, get absorbed in something and hours fly by…)

      I’ve found installing a free app called Stretchly really helpful for regular reminders while I’m on the computer – maybe that would help you too?

      (And I spell it “Mum” too! I believe it’s mainly our American friends who spell it otherwise :p)

  3. Lutero Appel says:

    Hi Emilie!
    Your words inspire me a lot!
    I’m learning a lot about multipotentiality.
    And I can say with conviction that the subject has added a lot to my life in terms of self-knowledge and sense of life. My life became less tedious after I began to study and practice the subject.
    In Neurolinguistics I learned that there are no errors, only results.
    Turn problems into possibilities. This is what NLP teaches, but in practice it is not that simple, until it becomes a habit through repetitive experiences. In my professional life I let the problems come to me, I resignify them, keeping myself conscious and let them mature until I have a better resolution to that problem, even for dilemmas. To this day I have almost always been able to solve all problems. I’m struggling to take it one step at a time to not let the problem turn a snowball. I am currently learning how to mull bigger problems into smaller problems. And from the resolution of the minor problems I intend to reduce the pressure of procrastination, keeping the focus on the most important things.
    Thank you .

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Glad to hear you’re learning useful things, thank you for sharing :)

    • Sandrine says:

      Hi Lutero,

      Emilie shared this article, but it was written by Neil Hughes. I made the mistake in the past too. Emilie is really generous with her sharing.

      Thank you for sharing your concepts learned in NLP. All sources of teachings are great!

      Take care,
      Sandrine.

  4. aselniczka says:

    I’ve been doing morning pages for three months now! Since then:
    – I’m not spiralling into thoughts as much as I used to,
    – I’m not scared of trying new approaches on the ideas I’m executing,
    – I sleep better – I started to go to sleep JUST a bit earlier than usual – the difference is HUGE.
    I’m a big fan of morning pages. I recommend that technique to everyone. Google it, seriously.
    Now I have to figure out some routine to keep my place clean and tidy, sigh.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’ve heard many good things about morning pages – really ought to give it a try someday! Thanks for the tip!

  5. Tracy J Hayes says:

    Hi, Neil,

    Thank you for the great post! These are exactly the things I’m working on right now, so your words are timely, too. I also like Lutero Appel’s comment about there being no errors, only results.

    And Emily, thank you again for the sharing that you do and the whole community spirit!

  6. Hi Neil,

    Such a great article and so timely! I am actually trying the 168 hour technique by Laura Vanderkam (https://lauravanderkam.com/manage-your-time/).

    I just started yesterday… so we will see what comes of it, but I figured tracking everything I do will help me see the patterns of where my time is spent vs where I want it to be spent!

    Take care and keep stretching!

    Sandrine.

  7. MF says:

    Alexander Technique is well worth learning for anyone who is aware of posture as a contributing issue to problems. It’s useful for many other aspects of life too, but especially for those of us with sore necks/backs!

    Finding a teacher and booking some 1-1 lessons is expensive but very powerful. Stretching is good, yes, of course. But Alexander Technique will take you deeper and further.

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