Quit Smoking: Will versus willpower

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I was having a brief email conversation with a fellow blogger about quitting smoking, and how I had kept a couple of packs of cigarettes in a kitchen cupboard for a long while when I first quit. I kept them there ‘just in case of emergency’, meaning that if I had a panic attack in the middle of the night, or a sudden and radical change of mind, I could saunter over to the kitchen in my pajamas and light up. My fellow blogger pointed out that keeping a ‘backup’ pack would not work for him, because he would likely end up smoking them. He also went on to say that I must have strong willpower to do such a thing. That got me thinking about why it is that having a backup (cigarettes close at hand) works for some and not for others when quitting.

My philosophy toward quitting is and has always been for people to do what is right for them as an individual. Contrary to what many experts, books, web sites, bloggers etc. do by presenting a single linear method of quitting, I prefer to explore and explain the various options, allow people to draw their own conclusions and for them to make their own plans. People’s experiences of smoking are an integral part of their lives, and therefore quitting is also a very personal experience. But, I digress. Suffice to say that I believe in people informing themselves, making their own choices and taking full responsibility for their decisions.

The real reason why I went for the backup solution is because I believe in the path of least resistance when it comes to problem solving. Some people would call this laziness, and they would be right. It was much easier to have the backup cigarettes close at hand than to have to get dressed and drive around in the middle of the night searching for a convenience store or garage where I could buy some. It was lazy, admittedly, but it was also smart. As a tobacco addict, I knew that if I did change my mind for whatever reason, having the cigarettes close at hand or having to go out and get them would have resulted in the same outcome; I would be back to smoking again. The fact that the backup was practically within arms reach didn’t make any difference to my will to quit smoking. I was fully aware at all times that I wanted to quit, and for the most part it didn’t require much willpower.

To try to explain the difference between will and willpower, I resorted to Yahoo! answers. After all, who needs a dictionary when you can rely on millions of individuals’ opinions all over the web. 😀 On 20th June 2008, a member called Alisterio stated that:

  • “Will” is more or less synonymous with “inclination” or “disposition”: your will to do something, like climb Everest, is your motivation.
  • “Willpower” can be translated more or less as “strength of character”. It’s more to do with how well you control your urges or how disciplined you are with yourself.

I like Alisterio’s definition, because it accurately describes how I felt about quitting smoking. I had the will, or motivation, to quit. I knew it was time and I knew that I wanted to succeed. I was also pretty convinced that I would succeed because I felt mentally prepared. I was fully resolved to not smoking another cigarette, ever. I had informed myself (mainly through a lot of self-reflection), I’d made my choice, and I was ready to take full responsibility for my decision.

At times, particularly in the beginning, I had some nicotine cravings like most people do. I managed to stave them off by keeping myself busy and allowing them to pass. I was fully aware of what was going on. My body and mind were telling me that I ‘needed’ to smoke. The urge to smoke was there, but the willingness was not. I guess you could call my ability to battle these urges ‘willpower’, but in reality it all seemed pretty pathetic to me. Even the fact that the backup cigarettes were nearby couldn’t break my resolve, my will to quit. Just thinking about them sitting there in the cupboard made me think:

“They are there for a good reason. Don’t mess up that reason.”

However you choose to quit, and no matter what you do to get rid of your nicotine addiction, the journey you take from start to finish is not important. What is important is reaching your goal.

Quit Smoking: Success Takes Time

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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.

From idea to execution, but where’s the plan?

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Anyone who has ever managed a project either at work or in private life (for example: booking a holiday, getting married, buying a car or a house…) will know that the better the planning, the more likely the successful outcome. Of course, some projects require more planning than others, but overall you would need to be very lucky to go straight from idea to execution and land a successful project without encountering some struggles in between. It is far more likely that you would end up with disappointing results or in the worst case, a complete failure.

Unfortunately, many people who attempt to quit smoking don’t think of quitting smoking as a project and they don’t plan sufficiently ahead, other than potentially choosing a form of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and thinking of a vague strategy to avoid smoking, especially in the first few days. Granted, some people may save the money they would have spent on cigarettes, but that comes as a side-effect of quitting rather than being an integral part of the project. I can’t blame anyone for this lack of planning because there is no concrete tangible result to aim for, other than being able to say that you no longer do something that you used to do, or that you feel healthier, or wealthier, but at what point? Also, there is no real end to the project, because it is presumably a situation for life. In other words, quitting smoking appears to lack some of the key elements of most projects, and it is more about undoing than doing. But, I would still argue that quitting smoking should be considered as a project and planned as such.

The detail of that planning is far too long to go into in a short post such as this, and is explored in much more detail in my upcoming book, but in a nutshell it comes down to this:

1) Understand what drives you to smoke.

2) Explore why you want to quit.

3) Learn what to expect from others who have quit before you.

5) Learn about and understand the nature of cravings (physical, psychological) and how to combat them.

4) Discuss your quit smoking plans with people who can support you.

5) Decide which method of quitting to use (cold turkey, NRT, acupuncture, Chantix/Champix etc.)

6) Determine if medical supervision could be beneficial.

6) Build a plan of how to keep yourself busy in the first few days, weeks, months instead of smoking.

7) Decide when you want to quit.

8) Quit.

9) Take personal responsibility for your quit.

10) Regularly reward yourself for your achievement (it doesn’t have to be monetary).

Behind each of these steps are several sub-steps and sometimes side-steps. The 10 steps above are a simple outline, but I would like to point out that the actual quitting only occurs in step 8, well after the initial planning. In other words, the project planning takes a significant amount of consideration before the actual quitting process starts. It is not a question of going from an idea (I want to quit) to execution (quitting), but instead following a real project strategy:  idea -> planning -> execution.

Above I said that there is no tangible result to aim for, nor a real end to the project, the reason being that it is impossible to know up front at what point a person feels they have succeeded. Everyone measures their success according to their own individual criteria. In my humble opinion, however, I would say that positive results and the end of the project coincide when an individual feels proud of their achievement and feels confident that they won’t ever smoke again.

Bridging the gap between smokers and ex-smokers

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I recently read an article from a fellow WordPress blogger about his struggles with giving up smoking and how there is an unbridgeable gap between someone who is going through the process of quitting and someone who has already transformed themselves into a non-smoker. He correctly stated that someone who has already achieved the goal of quitting can only offer support and advice to someone who is still in the process of quitting, or share their own experience in the hope that it will help. The ex-smoker is standing on one side of the gap with all their struggles behind them, whereas the person engaged in the process of quitting is still fighting a battle on the other side.

The WP blogger’s article got me thinking about my role in helping other people to quit smoking. For sure, I’ve been through the quitting process, twice in fact. I quit smoking for five years in the 1990’s and now again for over four years, the difference being that this time around I know it will be forever, because I have made that decision. When I quit for the first time, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it in terms of helping others. I was too busy managing my own quit-smoking situation, climbing the career ladder and building a family. The second time around, however, I spent a lot more time thinking about what quitting smoking meant to me, and I became a lot more aware of what it means to others too, by talking to people, joining and participating in quit smoking forums, and gathering information from the internet.

I now have an arsenal of thoughts and ideas as I stand here on the other side of the gap, trying to help people who are going through the struggles of quitting. But, wait a minute!  I’m struggling too. My battle may be a different one now than it was previously, and I don’t even want to compare quitting smoking to helping others to quit (apples and pears?), but it is a struggle nonetheless, and I’m not about to give up fighting. In fact, I want to try to bridge that unbridgeable gap, not just by offering friendly advice and a shoulder to lean on, but by helping people to think differently about quitting smoking, for themselves. I firmly believe that empowering people to develop their own strategies and come to their own conclusions is a far better methodology than giving them some prescriptive advice or a plan, and expecting them to follow it.

It may only be a metaphorical bridge, but if I can manage to help just a small percentage of people to quit, it will be well worth the effort in the long run.

Quitting smoking isn’t a piece of cake!

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With the Christmas holidays in full swing, many of us are eating and drinking more than usual. It’s probably not the best time of year to be on a diet, with family and friends to visit and parties to attend. There are so many tasty treats on offer, much of which is particular to the season and therefore unavailable at other times. For those of us who want to lose weight it can be quite a struggle to avoid allowing ourselves even just that one piece of cake. But, let’s face it. Unless you have an eating disorder, one piece of cake is not going to ruin your diet. You can quite easily continue your diet by eating sensibly after the holiday season is over.

Quitting smoking, however, isn’t a piece of cake. You cannot indulge in just that one cigarette without running the serious risk of smoking another, and another, until you are back to smoking again just like you did before. The difference between smoking and eating cake is that smoking is addictive, whereas eating cake is not (even though many a woman might argue that eating chocolate cake IS addictive!). Just like many other addictions, quitting smoking requires complete abstinence. You either smoke or you don’t. There is no in-between.

Unfortunately, a lot of people fall into the trap of thinking that they can handle just one, or just a few cigarettes.  It’s a fair enough assumption when you consider the holiday pressure, and it may seem quite logical at the time.  It’s easy enough to convince oneself that just like the scrumptious piece of cake, one cigarette won’t matter in the long run.  But this line of thinking is a farce as fake as Santa Claus (I hope there are no young children are reading this!). For one thing, smoking a single cigarette is smoking and therefore you have not quit, and secondly, the statistics demonstrate that it is extremely likely that you will still be smoking at the end of January and probably longer.

It may difficult to avoid these creeping thoughts, but if you want to quit smoking, you need to consider the facts and try to set your emotions aside. It’s not a piece of cake, but it’s not mission impossible either. With the right level of mental preparation and anticipation of such situations, it becomes easier to understand why you are having tempting thoughts and how to counter them with your own logic.

N.O.P.E is not just a saying. It’s a way of life!

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Just as smoking is a large part of some people’s lives and was an integral part of mine for many years, N.O.P.E. has now become a key part of my life. I don’t sit around chanting the mantra for several hours a day, or even thinking about it much. In fact, I would say that when I do think about it, it’s mainly in the context of writing about quitting smoking.

N.O.P.E. stands for Not One Puff Ever, basically meaning that you vow to never smoke again, or even take a drag on another cigarette. It’s an easy concept and yet one that causes the demise of so many people who have decided to quit. Some people may think that having just one cigarette is a reward for having already managed to quit for a couple of days (or a few hours); some may hold out longer and reward themselves after a few weeks or a few months (years?), and some people decide that they can get away with being ‘casual’ smokers and smoke only a few times a year, or only at weekends.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not bothered by people smoking, if that’s what they choose to do. My goal is purely to help people who want to quit smoking, to actually quit smoking.

To me, quitting smoking means not smoking again, ever. N.O.P.E. It’s not a test of endurance. It’s not a question of trying to force oneself into believing in something against one’s will. It’s not a charade. It’s a conviction!

I firmly believe that I should never smoke another cigarette (or cigar, pipe, etc.) because it would lead me directly into smoking again. I don’t just think so, I know so. I am an addict, albeit reformed. I know my limit, and my limit is fragile. I’m not at all frightened of it, but I am very aware of it.

The craziest thing of all to me right now would be to smoke. Why? Because I don’t want to, I don’t need to, and what would it prove?

Using NRT May Lead to Success in Quitting Smoking!

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And so may going ‘cold turkey’, or using any other alternative method of quitting. It’s often touted that going cold turkey (i.e. stopping smoking with no quit-aids and definitely no Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)) results in the greatest long-term success rates. Big whoop, I say!

Statistics are a great way of calculating means, medians, modes, quartiles and deciles, trends and bell curves, and generally slicing and dicing data in every which way possible. I know this, because in my profession I have worked with crunching large volumes of data for many years. To me, displaying the results is just one part of the overall data analysis. Understanding the results is another part of the analysis. Understanding the relevance of the results is yet another part of analysis. And finally, questioning the effectiveness of the results by applying common sense and logic is probably the most important part of the analysis.

To make an analogy, if we were to study women’s shoe sizes and determine that less than 10% of the female population wear a size 5 or below, and that less than 10% of the female population wear a size 11 or above, it would leave 80% of the female population wearing a shoe size between 6 and 10. Oh, and before the ladies start throwing their shoes at me, I made up these numbers!

These (fictitious) shoe size statistics might lead us to believe that shoe manufacturers only need to take care about the 80%, because the rest of the female population is statistically irrelevant. But the fact is that somewhere, there is a market for the other 20%, and while they may be less representative of the overall demographic, these ladies’ feet are just as important in the grand scheme of things. It’s just plain common sense and logic! That is, unless you don’t mind that 20% of the female population go shoe-less through the cold and rain.

Of course, I’m trying to be humorous with the ladies’ shoes analogy. All I’m really saying is that 100% of the people trying to quit smoking need to be taken into account, regardless of which method typically succeeds the best. The end goal is to cater for everyone who wants to quit smoking, and not just declare that ‘cold turkey’ is the most effective method, as though that’s going to help someone who might benefit more from an alternative method of quitting.

Choose whichever quit method works best for you!

Overcoming Failure and Disappointment

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It’s quite rare that anyone deciding to quit smoking manages to succeed without trying at least a few times.  Some people have tried over and over again so many times that it would be impossible to count their number of attempts.  You might start to think that after a few tries quitting is just not for you, because you have proven to yourself that you just can’t manage it. You have failed and you feel disappointed.

I’m not going to sugar coat the situation. These sentiments are real. You set out with the right attitude and you were resolved to quitting, but sadly at some point the urge to smoke grew stronger than your desire to quit.  That is the nature of smoking addiction, at least in the beginning stages of quitting. Your body needs to deal with the physical addiction to nicotine and your mind needs to deal with the habit and the associations of smoking within your lifestyle.  But, you should not let yourself start thinking that it’s not worth trying again, and again, and again.

Here are some brief tips to managing the situation:

1)  If you failed to quit today, don’t try again tomorrow.  Instead, think about what went wrong, and try to be very specific about what triggered you into wanting to smoke again.  Ask yourself if it was due to a situation that could be avoided.  Ask yourself if you could have done better if you were mentally prepared.  Would you have potentially fought off the desire to smoke with a support system around you?  Would you have fared better under medical supervision? Perhaps you just needed to fill the gaps of time where you would normally smoke with another activity.  Question how you would manage things differently if you tried again.  I would honestly recommend that you take a lot of time thinking about all these details, because to simply launch yourself back into the next attempt without understanding what went wrong is likely to produce the same or a similar result.  I won’t make myself very popular by saying so, but I firmly believe that if it takes you weeks or months to understand the situation, it is way better than starting to quit over again too quickly.

2) Don’t beat yourself up over having failed to quit.  I can assure you that many people have tried multiple times, even into the hundreds of attempts until they finally hit that sweet spot where everything falls together and they muddle their way through to success.  The emphasis should be on having the strength to keep trying.  That in itself is a success, and a wonderful demonstration of determination.

3) Once you have understood what went wrong, try to anticipate other situations that might trigger you into doubting your ability to stay quit.  You may find that there are similar situations that you can avoid simply by being aware that they exist and by being prepared to confront them.  For every smoker who quits there are ‘triggers’ that induce a desire to smoke.  If possible, try to analyze when you smoke and where you smoke so that you can mentally prepare yourself to manage those situations, or avoid those situations accordingly.

4)  Give yourself time and space to prepare for quitting.  Many quit smoking resources tell you to start by planning a quit date.  That is a rather simplistic view in my opinion, because it is not the start of the process.  The start of the process is understanding what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it, and how you anticipate managing the hurdles.  To me, setting a quit date before anything else is like telling a novice mountain climber to set a date for scaling Mount Kilimanjaro, and then expecting them to go and run the expedition and succeed within that allotted time frame, without regard to planning and understanding the complexities of the mission.  You should begin by preparing yourself, and then set a quit date. Alternatively, prepare yourself and then jump straight in and quit on the spur of the moment. Whatever works best for you.

In summary, keep trying no matter how much it takes because the rewards are great, if only to no longer be a slave to the addiction.  Try to learn from your failures rather than to feel disappointed.  Question yourself about what went wrong and how you could improve on your next attempt.  Give yourself some slack.  You may have tried quitting tens times, but somebody else has tried a hundred times, or a thousand times.  You only need to succeed once!

Conviction, Courage and Determination

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Quitting smoking requires all three strengths in equal doses, just like the three sides of an equilateral triangle, which is considered one of, if not the strongest of geometrical shapes.

Conviction: a firmly held belief or opinion.

Courage: the ability to do something that frightens one, or strength in the face of pain or grief.

Determination: firmness of purpose; resoluteness.


Putting those definitions into terms of quitting smoking, it means that you need to have:

Conviction = a solid reason for why you want to quit.

Courage = the ability to stand up to the difficulties you’ll face when quitting.

Determination = a driving force within you to reach your goal.

Many people who fail to quit do so because they are missing one of these elements. Their reasons for quitting don’t withstand the test of time. They give in too easily when confronted with the reality of not being able to smoke anymore, or they don’t have the resolve they thought they had to follow through. At least, until they are free of the addiction to nicotine and the psychological attachment to smoking.

That sounds very harsh on the surface, but it’s not, and it’s not anybody’s fault. Many of us have launched ourselves into projects that failed because we were not prepared, we hadn’t learned or understood what to expect, and we felt less than confident going into them. I’m a self-proclaimed expert at messing up D.I.Y projects and then having to call in a professional to fix my mess before fixing the actual problem. 🙂

My point is that you shouldn’t just throw yourself into quitting smoking and hope that it works out alright. It’s much better to understand why you want to quit, learn about what to expect when you quit and learn to build that confidence to see you through to success.  It may sound like a tall order, but it’s totally achievable!

Uncle Jim Quit Smoking With No Effort

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“That’s it!  The price of a pack of twenty has risen beyond my limit.  I’m quitting!” Said Uncle Jim, stubbing out his last cigarette.  He hasn’t smoked a single one since that day.

At least that’s the story I heard from my mother many years ago.  I have no idea if Uncle Jim struggled to quit, or if perhaps his story is just as simple as it sounds.  I have heard other people telling me similar stories about members of their own family, or members of their friends families.  It seems that there are many people who know or have heard of Uncle Jim, Aunt Jane, and Granddad Alfred, among others.  These relatives might not have all quit due to the expense, but as far as the story goes they all made a spur of the moment decision to quit smoking and lived happily ever after.

I would like to believe that there are people like Uncle Jim, who have so much resolve that they can quit smoking just like that.  It’s not so much that I’m a skeptic as the fact that I don’t really find it relevant.  Our non-smoking parents, friends and family may find it extremely relevant, because to them Uncle Jim is a role-model.  They might not say it directly to your face, but they’re secretly thinking “If Uncle Jim can do it, then why can’t you?”

If only they understood that a) smokers are individuals with different reasons for smoking and different reasons for wanting to quit, b) not everybody has the same experience when attempting to quit, and c) how much do they really know about Uncle Jim’s claims anyway?

If you’re attempting to quit smoking, the best way to go about it is to inform yourself of your options, learn about expectations, understand typical experiences, and how to avoid potential pitfalls. Once you have done that, then you can make a solid individualized plan that suits your style and gives you the best chance for success.

I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution, unless of course you’re Uncle Jim, Aunt Jane, Granddad Alfred or any of the others who quit smoking without a second thought.  Most of us need a bit more than that, which is why I set out to share my knowledge of quitting smoking, based on my own experience and that of many other individuals.