Creatures of habit

I’m writing this column from an oil rig somewhere in the Bass Strait. In the distance one can just make out the shores of Southern Victoria to the North while a somewhat cold and unfriendly sea stretches for miles in all other directions. I have just finished doing about 1000 refreshing laps (well a lot anyway) of the helicopter landing pad (the helo-deck in rig language). Actually, it was quite pleasant in the early evening breeze watching the sun set between the dark, brooding clouds and the other rigs like pimples on a pumpkin disappearing slowly in the dark.

They reckon that a change is as good as a holiday. Well this is about as different as it gets from downtown Iluka let me tell you and it has been a huge learning curve. Mind you I’d hardly call it a holiday. My whole routine has been thrown completely out of kilter including all those things you take for granted such as when you sleep, eat, work, rest, and play. Nothing I have been doing here has been the same as being at home or even other places when I travel. For a while this was very disconcerting and even uncomfortable as I tried to adjust.

We are creatures of habit though, aren’t we? I realised while stepping it out on the helo-deck that it didn’t take me long to develop a routine to suit my changed circumstances. In fact being out here in such a confronting environment might have made me even more obsessive about when and what I do. Developing a routine and new habits was a way of feeling secure.

So, I developed a routine for when I get up and have my first cup of tea, eat, what I eat, exercise time, watching the news, going to bed, as well as a schedule for doing things at work. It’s interesting how quickly the routine became ingrained and I could even get a little upset if something threw it out of alignment. I have been watching the other guys and it is interesting to see that they do the same and you can almost set your watch by a lot of the behaviours. Given how big some of the men are I have been very careful where I sit in the cafeteria; wouldn’t want to sit in papa bear’s seat.

The thing with habits, of course, is that we tend not to think about them, unless you’re a psychologist out on an oil rig in the middle of nowhere. They are automatic and happen almost out of our conscious awareness. Habits defy rational thought so that even if we know something is bad for us we keep on doing it. They enable us to spend our time thinking of other things without being a distraction given that we don’t really have to pay attention to them at all.

No wonder changing bad habits is so difficult. We are probably not even aware of them most of the time. When we are aware, we ignore them. And, of course, there is the comfort that routine gives us in an otherwise turbulent world. This has been an opportunity to think about my habits, good and bad, and to bring them into my consciousness. Once there they are much easier to change. So much so that even though I’ve been surrounded by lots of cakes and great food, I have lost over 3kg. It brings us back to that old, old question: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is one… but the light bulb has to want to change.

Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist.


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