How to Break the Habit

ReginaTNAfter a 22-year, almost two-pack-a-day habit, I quit smoking. So I am frequently asked to share how I managed to stop. My initial answer is, “I just did.”

That may seem too simple a response for smokers to believe. But yes, one part of the truth is that at 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening, I smoked my last cigarette. For the past 15 years I have not smoked even one cigarette. And my over-two-decade history with cigarettes holds another truth. Quitting happened only after I spent time on the front end preparing myself both physically and emotionally to end the nasty habit for good.

Transforming my decades-long dependency on nicotine took concentration, self-support, self-control, and a deep desire for my freedom. For way too long I had lied to myself, ignored the obvious physical dangers, and allowed myself to act unconsciously and irresponsibly.

I began to regain control over myself and the habit when I stopped believing the lies I told myself, such as that smoking calmed my nerves. The fact was that smoking was very bad for my body. It actually made me more nervous than not smoking. For years I worried about getting lung cancer, to the point where I was obsessed and lived in terror of it. The truth was that I got sick all the time, smelled bad, had a constant cough, and could not walk up one flight of stairs without becoming badly winded.

With the facts of how my body felt out on the “truth” table, I finally began to wake up, get fed up, and start accepting the reality about my nasty habit. I honestly admitted that from almost the first cigarette I smoked, I had wanted to stop. In fact, for 22 years, I had told myself I had to quit smoking. I’d try and fail. Then try again and succeed for a week or two. Each and every time my intentions to quit were good. But after trying again and passing up a cigarette or two, soon I made an excuse to have just one. Then I beat myself up for once again not being strong enough not to smoke. Excusing my lack of commitment, I told myself I was not perfect, I was only human, with faults, and I was allowed to make mistakes.

I tried to change the negative habit for a long, long time. Until I realized I could continue “trying” for the rest of my life. It was that “aha” when I realized quitting smoking—or any other destructive habit—is accomplished not by trying harder, but by “doing.”

To successfully do what was necessary to finally quit, I made a plan of how I would be a non-smoker in one month, and I stuck to the plan. During the first two weeks, I became emotionally responsible for each cigarette. That is, I remained present with and connected to each puff. I stopped doing anything else and just smoked. No eating, watching TV, talking on the phone, or any other distractions.

When I finished each cigarette, I put the butt into a jar with a little bit of water. Each time I wanted a cigarette, I first made myself smell that nauseating mixture. It was revolting; what I imagined I smelled like to a non-smoker.

For the last 10 days leading up to my final-cigarette target date, I dramatically reduced the number I smoked each day. On day one I started with 20, a full pack. The next day I went to 18, the next to 16, then 14, then 12. Over the final five days I limited myself to only five cigarettes per day. By the time Sunday evening rolled around, I was truly anxious to quit. I lit it and smoked it down to the filter and put it into the jar.

I spent the next month retraining myself and my mind. I stayed present, and when I habitually reached for a cigarette, I replaced that action with a new, positive habit of drinking a glass of water, or going on a short walk, or eating a carrot stick, or smelling that vile mixture of cigarette butts. By staying emotionally present with and responsible for my non-smoking actions, I managed not only to quit smoking but also to actually lose five pounds in the process.

As smokers, we may try to quit several times. But to make certain this time is our last, we must become emotionally responsible for the habit. We must courageously face the fact that we live with the constant dread of dying. We must acknowledge that we are continuously sick, smell bad, and have a deep, nasty cough. We must accept the truth that we are intentionally abusing ourselves, exposing others to the harmful effects of second-hand smoke, and wasting so much money. And, we must become responsible for the fact that we are allowing ourselves to be controlled rather than being in control of ourselves.

The bottom line is that to better our life, we have to better ourselves—first, by defining the acceptable behavior we want from ourselves: to be a non-smoker. Second, by setting a boundary with ourselves to not smoke, period. And third, to remain focused on keeping the “I refuse to smoke even one” boundary in place.

The last one is huge because, yes, there were many times I was not popular with myself for striving to change for the better. While I was getting over the withdrawals of smoking, there were countless times I wanted just one more cigarette. But the boundary I had set was not to pick up even one cigarette, ever again.

To be stronger than the addiction, temptation, and my countless rationalizations, I had to focus with tunnel vision on keeping the boundary firmly in place. Concentrating on the boundary I set for myself gave me the willpower to stop smoking, cold turkey. It has been many years since I put cigarettes down, and the boundary of not having even one cigarette remains in place.

Our success in breaking a negative habit depends on preparing ourselves. To stop smoking, we must completely accept that we cannot allow ourselves to pick up even one cigarette. We must accept that it will take at least a month until we have passed the point of having the physical or psychological desire to smoke.

We can accomplish anything we want when we love ourselves enough to take the actions necessary to remain in control of our behavior. We do not listen to the rationalizations of our mind that say we can have just one. No, we listen to the higher wisdom of our heart that says I CAN do this! I am worth it. Yes, I do love myself enough NOT to pick up even one.

Taking control of our behavior this way is really the key to winning over any undesirable habit. We replace a negative habit with a new, self-loving and self-respectful, positive habit.

By developing the positive behaviors necessary to stop a negative habit, we become self-aware. With greater awareness over our actions, our heart opens and we move forward, with a new sense of empowerment and responsibility, avoiding behaviors that hurt ourselves and others.

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