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How to quit smoking as a Moderator, not Abstainer

As the name implies, moderators are people who avoid absolutes and defined lines. In the case of food, that would be an everything in moderation approach – nothing is off-limits. Abstainers, on the other hand, make things black and white— it is either 100% off-limits, or 100% on.

When one quits smoking, it's usually seen as successful if they quit for life. This can be quite difficult for moderator types, myself included.

Background on me, I started smoking at 13, and went from smoking a pack a day until I was 23, to quitting for 7 years, to smoking a pack a month, to a pack a year, to quitting again for years, to not worrying about when and if I smoke at all because I am not a smoker, and it's not a habit.

Over the years I've helped several people quit with a number of thoughts and tricks, which I will share below.

    1. Get a calendar

    When I was 23, I first decided I wanted to quit smoking. I bought a calendar, hung it up on the wall of my room, and threatened myself with a brown sharpie should I fail my task. My room was hot pink with green accents, a brown sharpie mark on my wall would have tortured me.

    I quit for 7 years the first time. But, it wasn't just the calendar, there were a number of things I did to ensure my first 7 years of success which I continue to describe below.

    2. Why Do I Smoke?

    You can't just decide to quit smoking and expect success without asking yourself why you smoke in the first place.

    For me, it was multi-factorial:

    I smoked because my dad and I bonded with cigarettes as "our secret" (yes, at 13)
    I smoked because it helped me meet people socially who were other smokers
    I smoked because I wanted to think

    3. When did I smoke?

    You can't just decide to quit smoking without targeting when you smoke, either. Because the cues that you have will need to be modified, guarded against and considered, and you will need a plan for what you will do when the cues occur.

    I smoked while I drank coffee
    I smoked more on the weekends with other people than by myself
    I smoked when I was more upset
    I smoked when I needed to think about something deeply

    4. How to meet the needs of when/why without smoking

    1. I didn't have a good relationship with my dad, so continuing on with the habit that was formed during this "secret bonding phase" was unnecessary.
    2. I could go outside for second-hand smoke, and tell people I'm an ex-smoker getting a second-hand fix. This opened up many conversations.
    3. Getting in a "deep think" without cigarettes was by far the most difficult one to tackle, which is important and I will touch on it several times later.
    4. I had to cut out coffee for a couple of months to prevent my "cues" from overpowering me
    5. Again, I would smoke at bars with friends, so I instructed friends to still invite me out even though I was trying to quit because it was also when I found myself having deeper, more meaningful conversations (which I enjoyed) and it was also my "cue" to take breaks at work.
    6. Smoking when I was upset went hand in hand with deeper thinking. It became clear that I could resolve a serious issue in the space of one or two cigarettes flat, but without smoking I could stew for days or weeks resolving these issues. Driving would be a second-best but required longer trips that were at least an hour or so, and I would have to get out of the city.

    5. Tackling self-sabotaging thought processes

    First, the idea that it is "difficult" to quit smoking gives smokers an excuse that if they fail, it's because it's difficult. The truth is that if they fail, it's not because it's inherently difficult but because they were not properly prepared to take on such a monumental task.

    The second thing that I realized that has been a tremendous help to others is that the cigarette companies pay for programs to help smokers quit, and perpetuate this idea that it is difficult to quit.

    But why the hell would these companies spend this kind of money if they got nothing in return? The return is that they leave smokers with the world's greatest excuse for buying more of their product and failing. "Quitting smoking is difficult" is the product they peddle at these meetings and unsuspecting smokers who want to improve their health are buying the line hook, line, and sinker.

    6. Tackling Identity

    One of the first things that I did when I decided to quit smoking was to change my self-identity. I thought of myself as a "smoker" when challenged with the dichotomy of "smoker vs non-smoker".

    At the beginning of my 7-year stretch, I decided to call myself a non-smoker right off the bat. I would not even say I was trying to quit, I would say I quit, and was now a non-smoker. If you say you're trying to quit, you're still telling yourself that you are a smoker, going through an experiment.

    This is self-sabotage. Don't do that. Identify yourself to yourself and others as a non-smoker.

    7. After 7 years I smoked again. Did I fail?

    I did not see this as a failure like one would expect, because I knew I did not successfully find a way to target my needs for deep-thinking and resolving major life crises quickly with the use of cigarettes. I was set up for a setback. I knew something could happen in the future that was big enough to knock me off course.

    But did I dive back into a pack a day? Absolutely not. Because the second you think that you have "failed", you have given yourself permission to act as though your experiment was a failure, and take up smoking as you did before.

    The only "failure" as I saw it, was to effectively plan out how I would react in such a major life-altering crisis, and I "failed" to figure out something that was as effective as smoking to implement deep thinking.

    To this day, I have not found a better tool. Which leads me to the rest of this post.

    8. Giving myself permission

    To this day, I have not figured out how to do "deep-dive" superpowered thinking without cigarettes. So I gave myself permission to smoke, and this is when rules were implemented around smoking to avoid falling back into old dangerous habits.

    9. New Rules

    My personal rules regarding smoking are as follows:

    1) Smoking is a planned activity, not impulsive. If I know that something is pending and will require my top thinking skills, I can buy a pack of cigarettes.
    2) I cannot smoke near my house, as this would set me up for having spacial cues which should be avoided at all costs. Instead, I have had designated smoking docks (in Marina del Rey), and park benches (in Cyprus).
    3) Once the crisis is over, rip the rest of the cigarettes in the pack apart. Do not save them, do not throw them away in a place you can get to them, otherwise you will go looking for a new crisis to smoke over (I learned this one the hard way).
    4) Do not smoke with other people. If others enter your space, shoo them off. This is done because I have historically leaned on cigarette smoking as a social crutch. Luckily, because I quit I was able to develop better skills to enter into conversations with strangers that did not involve cigarettes.

    The next one has a MAJOR caveat.
    5) If a crisis occurs that requires immediate cigarette smoking, I will allow it. However, I only allow it because I have a proven track record and can quit for months and years at a time, as I have developed other coping skills. Otherwise, this will have to be planned in advance. Ideally, you should have gone a year without smoking and developed other skills before attempting this.

    10. In the event of a breakdown

    If you are smoking for the sake of smoking, that is a failure.

    If there is a breakdown here, you may need to be an abstainor, and start from square one and figure out why and when you smoke and target those reasons/cues.

    If you do better with abstention, and are an abstainer at heart, you will need to ignore all of my rules for smoking as this is not going to work for you.

    11. Final Words of Wisdom if you want to stop smoking

    For better or worse, smoking is deeply hard-wired for me as it is for others to enhance cognitive performance, and self-awareness. As such, it remains a tool in my toolbox which is used at strategic times for strategic purposes. It is not a habit I need to kick, because it is not a habit anymore.

    But whether you are an abstainer or moderator, please sit down with a pen and paper and ask yourself why you smoke, when you smoke, and come up with a strategy for the future and decide how you will behave in each situation. You do not want to be caught off-guard.

    Either way, when you decide to stop smoking, be *very* careful with your language, and how you self-identify, because that has a major impact on how you will fare as you make this transition.

    Next, don't believe that quitting is as hard as they say. Don't trust the people saying it, especially if they profit from the sales of cigarettes. And if they are your friends or family members, sometimes they repeat that it's hard so that they have an excuse, and if you agree with them, they'll feel validated in their own lack of success. This is a trap. Insulate yourself from this noise as best as you can.


    If you are a MODERATOR:

    It is not possible to stress how important it is to smoke far away from home or work in a designated space. It may seem trivial, but it is not. I believe it is the most important thing to do if you want to avoid falling into old behavior patterns.

    It is also imperative that you set up your own set of rules regarding how much, when, and why you will smoke. My reasons, my rules, and my how much and when work for me, and may not work for you.

    In the future if I find something that can supplant the superpowered charge of thinking while smoking, I think that will be the end of cigarettes for me. I've never stopped looking.

    12. Final Thoughts

    Obviously, this is still smoking. In a perfect world, zero smoking would be ideal, but this isn't a perfect world and I am not a perfect person.

    Mitigating damage:

    1) Keep life crises to a minimum
    2) Ensure that the vast majority of your allowances are planned
    3) Let someone (mom for me) know every time you smoke
    4) See if smoking can be supplanted by something else

    13. Disclaimer

    I'm not a doctor, I'm not a coach, and I'm not a psychologist. This is not medical advice.
    This is how I handled myself, and this is the insight I wish I had read from someone else long, long ago.

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