New habits dying hard: greyness in the brain

Whether we like to think so or not, habits are an integral part of life for most of us.  Apart from anything else they are the lubricant which we use to cope with the boring, everyday stuff.  It is also a way of speeding things up if we react out of habit rather than having to think about everything fresh each time.

As an extreme example, when I was canoeing regularly I spent one evening in the practice pool doing nothing but left hand eskimo rolls in order to get the actions so engrained in my subconscious that when I needed to roll up after capsizing I could do so on the left as well as the right without having to think about it. When you’re upside down on a white-water river or in the surf you don’t want to waste time before getting back up to where you can breathe.  It worked.

On a more mundane level, an everyday survival habit is the ritual for the first few minutes after I wake up in the morning which helps me transform back into a human being. The first few minutes of any day are on autopilot: loo, teeth, quick wash, coffee, sit and read.  I emerge at the end of that 30 minutes with my brain once more intact and in gear for the day ahead.

Arrival back in Grey Britain means that I’m not only having to re-acclimatise to grey, wet weather but to a whole different set of habits, the old habits.  Because intervening months have been so packed with new and interesting stuff life in the UK seems a distant memory and the old habits have to be consciously remembered.   Problem is that new habits have formed and are fondly remembered.

Much of the time I was in Greece things were very fluid with very little time to drop into any kind of rut.  Travelling was very uncertain and many plans had to be changed, some literally at the point of departure.  I moved on 12 times in 2 months and the longest I was in any one place was 2 weeks in Kardamili.  Somewhere new each time and every day new places to explore, new mountains to climb.  Little opportunity for habits to form.

Yet in a sense, the constant change and practical problem solving became the habit.  I got used to dealing with transport difficulties, slipping easily into sussing out timetables and ticketing arrangements.  I got used to dealing with the multiple variations of bad plumbing in hotels: as a rule of thumb the more modern the bathroom fittings the less well they worked (the old fashioned plug-on-a-chain was invariably most efficient in wash basins …. and I carried my own ‘universal plug’).  I got used to the constantly changing breakfast menu, rarely anything remotely like I have at home or my yogurt-honey-fruit breakfast of choice in self-catering.  I got used to tracking down a good, cold pint of draught beer in a pleasant location at the end of a long, hot walk.  I got used to finding restaurants which offered traditional Greek menus at affordable prices.

Despite the constant change days did tend to follow a sort of pattern.  08.00 breakfast.  09.00 access e-mails and post blog.  10.00/10.30 set out for a walk via a periptero (kiosk) to buy ice cold water and a supermarket to buy fresh bananas.  13.00/14.00-ish banana stop preferably on a mountain top, cliff overlooking the sea or monastery courtyard.  17.00/18.00-ish get back to hotel.  Shower, change then 18.00/19.00-ish beer and read a book on the Kindle. 19.30/20.30 download photos from camera to computer and edit.   20.30/21.00 meal.  22.30/23.00 nightcap and read more on the Kindle.  This sounds pretty regimented but it was far from that, it was simply how the day seemed to unfold with some regularity.

And that’s why in a sense the general pattern of the day over 2 months became a habit.  It was also a habit that as much as possible was done outside in the warmth of Greek sunshine, or warm Greek shade.

That pattern, that habit, was dislocated when I got back and it has been, and still is, hard to adjust.  The strange thing is that it is the absence of constant change and variation which has been most difficult to adjust to.  There is a much more steady rhythm to life at home.  The old habits of the day are coming back slowly but are not so welcome and are a bit unnerving.  I’ve slotted back to old early-morning ritual to bring me new into the world each day. Everyday-rituals seem somehow more comforting now that the distinctly depressing thoughts in my head when I get up are about household chores, coping with the grey weather, and sorting out the rampant garden rather than going out under cloudless blue sky to new places with the prospect of seeing new things.

There are of course the detailed habits to break.  It happened to me yet again in the first few days back home, a visit to the loo saw me standing in the middle of the floor clutching used paper with my brain unable to communicate to my hand that I should throw it in the pan and flush.  Instead I was casting around for the bin.  (for those who haven’t been to Greece, the sewerage system there requires paper to be thrown in a bin, not flushed away).  It becomes habit very quickly which, after a couple of months, is difficult to break.  It seems wrong and unclean to put paper in the loo.

The old habits will creep back and gradually take over.  If I’m not careful.  As I wrote previously, the trick is going to be to introduce new challenge into the daily routine.  Deal with the chores but inject challenge.  Habit can be part of and reinforce the greyness of life.  It’s important to keep the greyness out of the brain.

Better weather would help.  A week or two of reliable blue sky instead of grey and wet would be far more tempting to outdoor activity.

So would affordable prices in UK accommodation.  I thought I would break the mould this weekend and go somewhere I haven’t been before or somewhere I have been but want to revisit.  The UK was to be my oyster.  Pembrokeshire to walk the coast path.  North Wales to climb my favourite mountain, Cadair Idris.  Cornwall to revisit St Ives and fulfil a long-held ambition to visit the Eden Project. I checked out accommodation options on-line and knocked the idea firmly on the head.  The cost of two nights in a cheap B&B or hotel is roughly equal to a week in Greece in good quality accommodation.  It seems that rip-off prices are a habit in Britain.

But I’m determined to come up with something.  Watch this space.

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