How I Quit Smoking – Habit Tweaking Four Weeks On

Wow! It’s been such an educational four weeks and I have so much to share I don’t even know where to begin…. Let’s start with the big picture and work towards the specifics. A few of the key lessons I’ve learnt to start with:

By becoming aware of your habits, you’re half way through to changing them.

How do you become aware? First by watching your urges and the cues that trigger them. Then, by keeping track of them at least on a daily basis.

You must prioritize (changing) your habits.

Some habits, which prepare the ground for others to flourish, are much more important. Also, you can’t do everything at the same time. You need to focus on a select few, otherwise your efforts get diluted.

The way you start a day determines how you’ll finish it.

When I messed up in the morning (got up late, didn’t eat properly etc.) I was much less likely to accomplish what I’d planned for throughout the day.

Taking up new habits has been more difficult than quitting existing bad habits.

This came as a slight surprise. I thought quitting smoking would be a lot more challenging than taking up micro meditations…

I can’t go into the details of each habit I was trying to change, but the ones I was trying to get rid of, are definitely worth a closer look.

Habits I’ve been trying to quit

Smoking, is kind of a big issue, right?

As I mentioned in my original post leading up to this, I’ve never been a heavy smoker, but according to some experts, that (ie. frequency) doesn’t change a thing: the habit is just as hard to break.

It’s been a little more than 4 weeks that I didn’t touch a cigarette and feel very happy about it. The first few days were probably the most difficult. What helped me push through was:

  1. I identified the cues that triggered the craving
    1. being around smokers
    2. frustration
    3. boredome
  2. I associated new routines with existing cues
    1. doing a quick series of push ups
    2. walking
    3. drinking tea or wine
  3. I tried to get rid of as much of the cues as possible.

But perhaps most importantly, every evening, I put a big 0 to the number of cigarettes I smoked that day in my habit tweaking sheet and watched the cell turn into green. I can’t even begin to describe how satisfying that felt every single time. Probably better than smoking itself 🙂

It wasn’t as easy as I make it sound though.  At one point, I found myself standing in a group of three dozen smokers puffing away delightfully, while I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine, both of us holding a drink in our hands and my friend a cigarette as well. While I did feel the craving for short periods, lighting up never seriously presented itself as an option. Testing as it was, I must have been too determined by that stage and too hooked on checking the progress sheet every night.

Having talked publicly about my attempt to quit also played a massive role I think; without it, I might have made an exception or two…

But I didn’t. And although 30 days is not a big deal, and I know I could fall back any time, my determination not to do so grows with every passing day. I will keep entering the zeros every evening and will certainly report back on how I hold up.

My attempt to cut back on news consumption and email/Facebook checking and thus improve my productivity worked surprisingly well. Again, I only had to make a conscious effort in the first few days. Whenever the urge to (waste some time and) check the news/email/FB arose (which it did at least hourly) I stood up, made a tea or coffee or a bit of housework. Within a few days, the urge seemed to have gone. And although I still feel like procrastinating whenever I face a daunting task, I procrastinate much less. Sometimes I don’t even check the news until late in the evening and not checking email first thing in the morning has been nothing less than blissful. However, the allowance of 2 email checks a day may not be sustainable so I might have to revise that. The main thing is to not start your day with it.

My weird habits, such as sticking my tongue out while peeling potatoes, touching my face too often while conversing and walking like a racewalker, didn’t go away in these 30 days. However, I managed to develop an awareness of them, and many times I catch myself doing these and then correct automatically.

Habits I’ve been trying to internalize

The morning routine I got into has proven life changing. This is less relevant for people who go to work first thing in the morning, but if you work mostly from home or on a flexible schedule, having a smart morning routine can make a huge difference.

That said, getting up on time has been the most challenging habit I’ve tried to get into. I’ve only reached my idealistic goal of getting up at 7am four times out of thirty. Of course, I didn’t fail at getting up, I failed at going to sleep in time. Sometimes I’d force myself to get up despite sleeping very little just to find that it makes no sense, because I’d feel crappy all day long.  So a good morning routine starts with a good evening routine and involves being realistic about how much you can accomplish in a day.

Perhaps one of the most valuable and actionable lesson has been that unless you do it in the morning it may never get done. Three weeks out of the four, my morning routine included breakfast, a bit of reading, writing and exercise, which would take up to 3 hours sometimes. It wasn’t until the fourth week that I realized this wasn’t right. Much as I love reading and writing, I had to change the order of things to make sure that the important stuff always gets done. So what I’ve been doing recently is I’d pick just one thing that I wanted to accomplish on any given day no matter what. I’d start my day with this one thing, while my battery of willpower was fully charged and get it out of the way. Again, if you go to work early morning this may not be a feasible strategy, but even so I’d think about getting up earlier rather than leaving it to the evening. This has proven extremely efficient and I’ve accomplished my main task every single day since I started this.

Changing my eating habits has not been as difficult as I expected. I only seriously slipped a few times and even on those occasions I mostly overate on healthy stuff. If there was a magic ingredient to a healthy diet, I’d say not keeping any junk food at home is definitely part of it. Obvious as that may sound, I’ll bet you that most people keep a cookie or two somewhere tucked away, as kind of a last resort. The reason why zero tolerance has worked so well for me, is because there are times when no amount of rational thought will stop me from eating whatever I find in the cupboard, but it never gets bad enough to actually go out and buy junk food. I just stuff my face with whatever I find at home, the worst of which has been fruits, nuts, dried fruits and porridge in these last 30 days.

I also set a goal to cook at least 2-3 times a week, which I thought would prove overly optimistic, but I turned out to do even more. What helped me was that I learnt to cook a few basic things by heart so that I wouldn’t have to keep looking at a recipe. That said, I cooked vegetarian chilli 3 or 4 times, but it tasted completely different every time….

One of the failures has been trying to get into the habit of micro mediations. I tried to associate it with stressful moments, having a meal, drinking tea and all sorts of things, but it didn’t really work. I would remember to do it sporadically, and it worked like charm every time, but I failed to make it a habit.

What am I going to do with all this and what can you?

Overall, this experiment has been very successful at confirming my belief that by paying attention, being aware and taking small, incremental steps, I can make huge changes in every aspect of my life.

I’ve learnt that

  • I must prioritize and focus on keystone habits that facilitate the development of others;
  • the only way to keep my motivation up is making incremental changes and having a sense of many small wins along the way;
  • tracking my progress on a daily basis has been the single most important factor in getting that sense of small wins as well as keeping my awareness up;
  • it is absolutely possible to design your own habits and if you don’t, others will.

Even if not at this level of detail, but I’ll keep tracking some of my habits in the future and I invite you to do so too. Instead of setting a new year’s resolution, pick a few habits that will support one another, and track your progress. Pay attention to the cues, and switch the old routines with new, better ones.

Happy 2015!







One response to “How I Quit Smoking – Habit Tweaking Four Weeks On”

  1. […] read a couple of  books on how habits worked and started experimenting. I’d already posted a follow-up a few weeks later, where I came to conclusions that still hold true today. However, now, a year […]

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