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How Small Actions Can Make a Big Difference in Life With Chronic Pain

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In 1896, Vilfredo Pareto notices that roughly 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. Others began noticing this “Pareto principle” or “80/20 rule” show up in other areas, that a small number of inputs (the 20%) has a disproportionately large output. In business, generally, 80% of the sales come from 20% of the customers — and 80% of the problems come from 20% of the customers. 80% of the road traffic is on 20% of the roads. 80% of the programming bugs are found in 20% of the code. Even if it’s not perfectly 80% and 20%, the general principle still applies: a small number of inputs lead to the majority of the outputs.

When looking at your health and improving your quality of life, the sheer number of choices you have can be overwhelming. Where do you start? If you apply the Pareto principle, you know that not every action you take will have the same impact. It’s better to focus on the 20% of things that will lead to 80% of improvement.

Now, instead of seeing an overwhelming number of choices for how to manage or improve your condition, you can look at which ones are likely to have the biggest impact, and then zoom in even further until you pick just one thing to do. Making one change at a time is often easier.

If there’s something you do regularly that frustrates you or makes your symptoms worse, is there a way to adapt it? Some things are out of your control, but you can focus on what you can control.

For me, when my hands and arms first started hurting, cooking was one of the things that flared my symptoms. I did it regularly, and I couldn’t just stop doing it, so I needed to find a way to adapt. As I looked at it, I realize that chopping my food was the most aggravating contributor to my symptoms. First, I tried chopping it in different ways or cooking in ways that didn’t need chopping, but that wasn’t working well enough. I ended up buying a food processor, eliminating all of the chopping. One small action led to big relief.

The same thing happened when I switched from keyboard typing to voice typing, I eliminated the one thing I did very regularly that also was the thing that flared my symptoms the most. More recently, I’ve been discovering that my voice software can create custom commands, so instead of having to clunkily navigate my mouse by voice, I created commands for common actions like navigating to the next or previous email. It saves me so much time and frustration.

So, as you look at your days and weeks, what are the biggest frustrations? What actions do you do regularly that are difficult for you? Is there one small change you can make to one of those? Or, as you look at your days and weeks, what are the things that bring you the most joy and life? Could you do more of that?

A small amount of inputs (the 20%) leads to the vast majority of the outputs (the 80%). By making changes to that 20%, you’ll be able to work on what matters most and what will have the biggest impact on you.

Getty image by CnOra.

Originally published: June 7, 2021
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