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Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. But don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.
A decade ago I smoked my last cigarette.
When I quit, it felt impossible.
I can barely remember it now, but I know it was painful.
Particularly the mental anguish of giving up something that I enjoyed. How could I ever enjoy a break from work, a party with friends, a walk, a drive, or a cup of coffee without my beloved nicotine?
I wish I could remember every moment of those first couple of months. I kick myself for not writing down my thoughts then.
I quit cold turkey.
It was the third time in my life I quit, and thankfully, it was the last time.
I smoked my last cigarette in the designated smoking area outside of a hotel in San Francisco on a Friday night. I’m sure I was both savoring it and damning it. I remember getting into bed that night disgusted by the smell of smoke in my hair.
The next day I drove to Carmel with my mom and proceeded to daydrink my way through my first 24 hours. I can’t say I recommend this approach, but it did work for me.
I woke up the next morning having survived a day without a cigarette.
I went for a run. I could tell I was on the road to freedom.
When I think about why I finally quit, I do remember this one public service ad.
It called out how frustrating it was to be beholden to this substance. How it dominated your thoughts. How annoying it was to be doing something you enjoy, but mentally calculating when you could get your next cigarette.
This resonated with me profoundly. Yes, I didn’t want to die. Yes, I didn’t want to look prematurely aged. Yes, I didn’t want to smell of smoke. But most of all, I didn’t want to be controlled by something.
Sometimes, even 10 years later, I’ll remember what it was like to shape every hour of my life around getting in a cigarette and I shudder.
When I see a smoker contemplating how they will get their next cigarette in, I feel so hard for them. I wish they knew how close they were to a better life, but I also know it can’t happen until they are ready.
I can’t even remember why I started smoking. I don’t remember why I felt I had to smoke. But along the way, it became a part of me, and then took years to unravel.
While I technically quit cold turkey, I think the act of quitting was really several years long, both leading up to and after the last cigarette was consumed.
To be honest, I don’t even know if I ever smoked “freely” aka without thinking about–at least in the back of my head–the harm I was causing myself.
Which leads me to believe I was working up the courage to quit from more or less the time I started smoking “full time” when I was 18 years old.
Between 18 and 31 I did have a couple of non-smoking years, but for the most part, I was a smoker. And as I continued puffing a pack a day, year after year, my smoking friends all quit, laws changed to prevent smoking in bars and restaurants, and the price of these freedom killers skyrocketed.
There became a time when I started hating that I was a smoker.
I was shackled to someone I didn’t want to be, but didn’t know how to leave.
I remember reading The Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr. It was motivating but I didn’t quit while reading the book. I think, but can’t remember, that it took me another couple of months to decide to smoke my final cigarette.
One technique that helped me get through the early days and weeks was to observe my urges to smoke as an outsider. I’d be sitting at my desk working and the urge to smoke would take over.
I’d tell myself to wait 5 minutes and see how I was feeling then. Most often, the urge would have dissipated. I had to do this at least 1680 times before it started to feel easy. That’s 20 times a day, seven days a week for three months.
I don’t actually remember when I had my first “hell yes, I love not being a smoker” moment, but I am grateful everyday I broke those chains.
About 8 months after I quit, I inquired at the CrossFit gym across the street. Since walking into that gym 9 and half years ago, I haven’t looked back. Fitness, while always sort of in my life in some way, became a defining cornerstone.
So did celebratory cakes!
On my one year anniversary of no smoking, my partner sent me the most delicious cake. And he has kept at it every year (although I’m waiting for the 10-year cake which is delayed due to a party we’re having later this summer if I can get around to planning it).
Every year has been quite the treat.
Unlike quitting smoking cold turkey, the vast majority of my changes have been slow evolutions. They start with a desire to change and usually come with a side of fear that I can’t do it.
But I keep pushing. I usually read a lot about whatever it is I want to change. I make little tweaks. Sometimes I go into “extreme mode”, but most often the changes are slow.
Like becoming a morning workout person. That took me months of dedicated effort and a lot of failure and it’s still not easy.
The two books that have helped me make changes are:
The Power of Habit explains the dynamics of a habit and thus how to undo or replace them. Atomic Habits translates the science of habits into a practical handbook.
The three pieces of advice that stuck out to me most across these two books are:
You’ve got to have a plan. Write down how the habit happens. Explain all the places you can break down. And develop strategies in advance for each one. This helped me stop the destructive habit of midweek takeout that was hurting my nutrition goals.
Act as if you are who you want to be now. I was afraid of starting a blog for years until I decided, I am a writer and writers write.
Start small, so small you can’t fail. This worked for me as I slowly cut my alcohol consumption from daily to once per week.
If you’re trying to quit smoking, starting small might seem impractical. I know for me I was either a non-smoker or a pack-a-day smoker. But if I had to do it again, I’d think of start small as a mindset for surviving the micro moments. Take the pressure off quitting forever. Just get through the next urge.
In many ways, that’s why I like pushing myself in the gym. I like to practice being uncomfortable. Even a decade into my fitness journey, I still get nervous before workouts. But I always do, and that daily dose of managing discomfort gives me the confidence to do it elsewhere in life.
So maybe that is my big lesson from 10 years smoke-free: the crutches are chains and being comfortable with discomfort is freedom.
If there is something you want to change about yourself, I hope you’ll see that it's possible. The time you spend thinking about and wanting to change is part of the process. Sometimes this phase is very long. Sometimes people never break out of it. But many people do and I believe you can too.
Thank you for reading.