I’ve often dreamed about being able to play a musical instrument, but sadly at the age of 52 it is still just a dream and will likely remain so for the rest of my days. The problem with living my dream was that I had unrealistic expectations. I wanted to spend a minimum amount of time and effort learning about scales, notes, chords, harmonies and so forth in order to be able to quickly knock out some tunes. I knew that I couldn’t expect to become the next Mozart in five minutes, but what could be so hard about learning the basics, trying out some simple melodies and moving on from there? I was excited to give it a try, convinced I could make it happen.
At one point in my early thirties, I bought a fancy electronic keyboard with MIDI capabilities that I hooked up to my PC. Armed with a few ‘getting started’ books, some software, and colored stickies which I applied to the keys, I followed the instructions diligently and tapped away happily for several hours a day for a few weeks. But, after such a short time, the thrill of following the book was already starting to wear thin. I wasn’t even able to play the simplest tune without looking carefully at the color coding in the book and then hitting the corresponding keys. I had clearly misunderstood the level of effort required to learn to play the keyboard. Still I pursued, feeling less and less enthusiastic for a few more days until finally I decided that there was no point trying to do something that was clearly beyond my reach. The MIDI keyboard subsequently collected dust for a few years and was then sold off at a garage sale along with a bunch of other items that had outlived their use.
Obviously, learning to play the keyboard was not really beyond my reach. It was more a question of me not being prepared to put in the required effort. I could have practiced more, bought more books, learned from others who could already play, or taken lessons for example. The problem was that my expectations of the learning process were unreasonably high and my lack of patience far outweighed my desire to learn to play properly. I wanted results but I didn’t apply myself. Lesson learned.
I use this example to illustrate what often happens to people who quit smoking. At first there can be a sense of exhilaration at getting started, followed by a sense of joy at having managed to get through the first day, a few days or a few weeks without smoking. In the beginning the results of your tactical efforts are enough of a reward to keep going. You managed to avoid smoking with your morning coffee, going for a cigarette break at work, refusing a cigarette that someone spontaneously offered you, and generally managing to dodge all situations that put you in danger of lighting up. You pat yourself on the back every day for the first while, but then the novelty of having quit starts wearing off.
You start getting fed up with going through the same routine everyday. The process feels a lot tougher than you expected, and even though you have managed to stay quit for a while, it is still very hard work. The cravings are difficult to manage and you start thinking about the supposed benefits of quitting; you don’t feel significantly healthier; your breathing hasn’t improved and in fact you’re chest feels congested; you may feel tired or agitated from the mental effort; your bank account balance isn’t looking much better than a few weeks ago. Your mind is starting to ponder about the lack of perceived benefits of having quit and you start questioning when you can expect to see some concrete results. You feel disappointed that despite all your hard work, the only noticeable change you see is that you’re not smoking anymore. You expected it to be a whole lot simpler process. At that point, many people cave in.
The fact is that just like learning a skill (in my example, playing the keyboard), quitting smoking and staying quit is a gradual process. Expecting it to be easy and especially for it to show significant results early on is simply unrealistic. Even recognizing distinct stages of quitting, such as when you no longer have cravings or when you feel healthier is quite unlikely, especially after just a few weeks. I realize that this may seem like a rather bleak state of affairs, but I would rather be honest with everyone than to try to convince anyone otherwise. If you persist in your pursuit of quitting, and get beyond thinking about quitting, you will likely wake up one day realizing just how much things have changed since the days when you used to smoke.