Dear Patients:

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of self-improvement. What we call “self-improvement,” is much akin to what the ancient Greeks thought of as a part of personal excellence. The Greeks felt that when a person chooses to strive against himself or herself as much as he or she strives against others, the whole of humankind advances. The ancient Olympics, and indeed the modern Olympics, capture this concept perfectly. When you become your very best, even if you don’t win a medal, you’ve still won.

If you suffer from chronic pain, you already know the sort of obstacles you are facing. Doctors and therapists are here to do all that they can do to help, but in the end, only you can do the actual striving. It’s not easy and many times, you may feel lonely and alone with your pain. Sometimes, it may seem as if your condition is insurmountable. Too big of a challenge for one person to take on.

If you are in anything like this situation, you may want to read and or listen to Atomic Habits, a book by James Clear. The title may be a bit misleading. In this use, “atomic,” does not mean explosive or incredibly powerful or gigantic. Rather, the reference is to the atom, the smallest unit of matter, far, far too tiny for us to even see. Yet, like everything else in the universe, each one of us is composed of atoms. I’ve heard it said that each of us is simply seven billion atoms, carefully assembled in the form of a human body.

In a way, our lives are just like our bodies. Built out of the countless tiny acts and actions we do and take everyday. Most of these acts and actions are so basic that we don’t even give them a thought; our bodies do them automatically whether we like it or not. But, there are, each day, dozens of important acts and actions that we CAN control. Yet by the time we reach adulthood, we do many or even most of these controllable acts and actions without much forethought. We’ve done them so many times, over and over, that they’ve become HABITS.

What are some of your habits? Do you brush your teeth before or after your morning shower? Do you shave before or after you take any morning medications or supplements? Do you walk out of your front or your back door? Do you drink a coffee before you leave the house or do you buy one on the way to work?

Some of our habits are pretty inconsequential; it doesn’t even matter much if we skip them. It doesn’t matter much if they are present in our lives or absent from our lives. However, other daily habits are absolutely critical, either by their presence or by their absence. The presence of cigarette smoking is damaging, just as the absence of exercise is damaging. The presence of too much medication dulls the mind and saps the spirit, just as the complete absence of it can leave the body bed-bound unmanageable pain.

Most of us would like to shed our bad habits and accelerate our good ones. This is the time of year when many of us are trying to follow through on the New Year’s resolutions we made just a few weeks ago. This is the year I quit smoking. This is the year I finally get back into shape. This is the year I’m losing weight. This is the year I’m cutting my pain meds in half. And on it goes.

As Atomic Habits points out though, the vast majority of us fail to carry through on our resolutions, but (and this is important), not because we lack in will power. Rather, we lack the STRUCTURE needed to put our will power to the good use needed to succeed. Building the structure needed to break unhealthy habits and form healthful ones is a big part of Clear’s book.

If you’d like to join the rest of us in making this the year you finally fulfill a few of the promises you made to yourself at midnight January first, pick up or download a copy of Atomic Habits. It’s an easy read and a pleasant listen, but it summarizes and applies hundreds of years of research and study. As it turns out, just why and how people form the habits they form has been the subject of intense research around the world. Who knew?

Next month, we’ll start taking a good look at how habit breaking and habit forming principles can be applied to managing your pain.