How to quit
Smokers often say, “Don’t tell me why to quit, tell me how.” There’s no one right way to quit, but there are some requirements for quitting with success. These 4 factors are key:
- Making the decision to quit
- Picking a Quit Day and making a plan
- Dealing with withdrawal
- Staying tobacco-free (maintenance)
Making the decision to quit
The decision to quit smoking is one that only you can make. Others may want you to quit, but the real commitment must come from you.
Think about why you want to quit.
- Are you worried that you could get a smoking-related disease?
- Do you really believe that the benefits of quitting outweigh the benefits of continuing to smoke?
- Do you know someone who has had health problems because of their smoking?
- Are you ready to make a serious try at quitting?
If you are thinking about quitting, setting a date and deciding on a plan will help move you to the next step.
Setting a quit date and making a plan
What’s important about picking a Quit Day?
Once you’ve decided to quit, you’re ready to pick a quit date. This is a very important step. Pick a day within the next month as your Quit Day. Picking a date too far away can allow you time to rationalize and change your mind. But you want to give yourself enough time to prepare and come up with a plan. You might choose a date with a special meaning like a birthday or anniversary, or the date of the Great American Smokeout (the third Thursday in November each year). Or you might want to just pick a random date. Circle the date on your calendar. Make a strong, personal commitment to quit on that day.
Remember that if you are planning to use a prescription drug, you will need to talk with your doctor about getting it in time for your Quit Day. If you plan to use bupropion (Zyban) or varenicline (Chantix), you must start taking the drug at least a full week, or maybe even 2 weeks, before your Quit Day. Talk with your doctor about exactly when to start, and how to use the medicine. Also find out what side effects to watch for and report. If you are using a prescription drug, put a note on your calendar to remind you to start taking it before your Quit Day.
Prepare for your Quit Day
There is no one right way to quit. Most smokers prefer to quit cold turkey — they stop completely, all at once, with no medicines or nicotine replacement. They smoke until their Quit Day and then quit. Some may smoke fewer cigarettes for 1 or 2 weeks before their Quit Day. Another way is to cut down on the number of cigarettes you smoke a little bit each day. This way, you slowly reduce the amount of nicotine in your body. You might cut out cigarettes smoked with a cup of coffee, or you might decide to smoke only at certain times of the day. It makes sense to cut down in order to reduce withdrawal symptoms, but this can be hard to do.
Quitting smoking is a lot like losing weight: it takes a strong commitment over a long time. Smokers may wish there was a magic bullet – a pill or something that would make quitting painless and easy – but there’s no such thing. Nicotine substitutes can help reduce withdrawal symptoms, but they work best when they are used as part of a stop-smoking plan that addresses both the physical and psychological components of quitting smoking.
Here are some steps to help you get ready for your Quit Day:
- Pick the date and mark it on your calendar.
- Tell friends and family about your Quit Day.
- Get rid of all the cigarettes and ashtrays in your home, car, and at work.
- Stock up on oral substitutes — sugarless gum, carrot sticks, hard candy, cinnamon sticks, coffee stirrers, straws, and/or toothpicks.
- Decide on a plan. Will you use NRT or other medicines? Will you attend a stop-smoking class? If so, sign up now.
- Practice saying, “No thank you, I don’t smoke.”
- Set up a support system. This could be a group program or a friend or family member who has successfully quit and is willing to help you. Ask family and friends who still smoke not to smoke around you, and not to leave cigarettes out where you can see them.
- If you are using bupropion or varenicline, take your dose each day leading up to your Quit Day.
- Think about your past attempts to quit. Try to figure out what worked and what didn’t.
Successful quitting is a matter of planning and commitment, not luck. Decide now on your own plan. Some options include using nicotine replacement or other medicines, joining a stop-smoking class, going to Nicotine Anonymous meetings, using self-help materials such as books and pamphlets, or some combination of these methods. For the best chance at success, your plan should include 2 or more of these options.
Your Quit Day
On your Quit Day:
- Do not smoke. This means none at all — not even one puff!
- Keep active — try walking, exercising, or doing other activities or hobbies.
- Drink lots of water and juices.
- Begin using nicotine replacement if that’s your choice.
- Attend stop-smoking class or follow your self-help plan.
- Avoid situations where the urge to smoke is strong.
- Avoid people who are smoking.
- Drink less alcohol or avoid it completely.
- Think about how you can change your routine. Use a different route to go to work, drink tea instead of coffee. Eat breakfast in a different place or eat different foods.
Read on to find out more about the kinds of thoughts and temptations that come up when you try to quit, and ideas for ways to deal with or avoid them.
Dealing with withdrawal
Withdrawal from nicotine has 2 parts — the physical and the mental. The physical symptoms are annoying but not life-threatening. Still, if you’re not prepared for them, they can tempt you to go back to smoking. Nicotine replacement and other medicines can help reduce many of these symptoms. Most smokers find that the mental part of quitting is the bigger challenge.
If you have been smoking for any length of time, smoking has become linked with a lot of the things you do — waking up in the morning, eating, reading, watching TV, and drinking coffee, for example. It will take time to “un-link” smoking from these activities. This is why, even if you’re using a nicotine replacement, you may still have strong urges to smoke.
Rationalizations are sneaky
One way to overcome these urges or cravings is to notice and identify rationalizations as they come up. A rationalization is a mistaken thought that seems to make sense to you at the time, but the thought isn’t based on reality. If you choose to believe in such a thought even for a short time, it can serve as a way to justify smoking. If you have tried to quit before, you will probably recognize many of these common rationalizations:
- “I’ll just have one to get through this rough spot.”
- “Today is not a good day. I’ll quit tomorrow.”
- “It’s my only vice.”
- “How bad is smoking, really? Uncle Harry smoked all his life and he lived to be over 90.”
- “Air pollution is probably just as bad.”
- “You’ve got to die of something.”
- “Life is no fun without smoking.”
You probably can add more to the list. As you go through the first few days without smoking, write down any rationalizations as they come up and recognize them for what they are: messages that can trick you into going back to smoking. Look out for them, because they always show up when you’re trying to quit. After you write down the thought, let it go and move on. Be ready with a distraction, a plan of action, and other ways to re-direct your thoughts to something else.
Use these ideas to help you stay committed to quitting
Avoid temptation. Stay away from people and places that tempt you to smoke. Later on you’ll be able to handle these with more confidence.
Change your habits. Switch to juices or water instead of alcohol or coffee. Choose foods that don’t make you want to smoke. Take a different route to work. Take a brisk walk instead of a coffee break.
Choose other things for your mouth: Use substitutes you can put in your mouth such as sugarless gum or hard candy, raw vegetables such as carrot sticks, or sunflower seeds. Some people chew on a coffee stirrer or a straw.
Get active with your hands: Do something to reduce your stress. Exercise or do something that keeps your hands busy, such as needlework or woodworking, which can help distract you from the urge to smoke. Take a hot bath, go for a walk, or read a book.
Breathe deeply: When you were smoking, you breathed deeply as you inhaled the smoke. When the urge strikes now, breathe deeply and picture your lungs filling with fresh, clean air. Remind yourself of your reasons for quitting and the benefits you’ll gain as an ex-smoker.
Delay: If you feel that you are about to light up, hold off. Tell yourself you must wait at least 10 minutes. Often this simple trick will allow you to move beyond the strong urge to smoke.
Reward yourself. What you’re doing is not easy, so you deserve a reward. Put the money you would have spent on tobacco in a jar every day and then buy yourself a weekly treat. Buy a book or some new music, go out to eat, start a new hobby, or join a gym. Or save the money for a major purchase.
You can also reward yourself in ways that don’t cost money: visit a park or go to the library. Check local news listings for museums, community centers, and colleges that have free classes, exhibits, films, and other things to do.
Remember the Mark Twain quote? Maybe you, too, have quit many times before. If so, you know that staying quit is the final, longest, and most important stage of the process. You can use the same methods as you did to help you through withdrawal. Think ahead to those times when you may be tempted to smoke, and plan on how you will use other ways to cope with those situations.
More dangerous, perhaps, are the unexpected strong desires to smoke that can sometimes happen months or even years after you’ve quit. Rationalizations can show up then, too. To get through these without relapse, try these:
- Remember your reasons for quitting and think of all the benefits to your health, your finances, and your family.
- Remind yourself that there is no such thing as just one cigarette — or even just one puff.
- Ride out the desire to smoke. It will go away, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can have just one.
- Avoid alcohol. Drinking lowers your chance of success.
- If you’re worried about weight gain, put some energy into planning a healthy diet and finding ways to exercise and stay active.
Recovering from slips
What if you do smoke? Here’s the difference between a slip and a relapse: a slip is a one-time mistake that is quickly corrected. A relapse is going back to smoking. You can use the slip as an excuse to go back to smoking, or you can look at what went wrong and renew your commitment to staying away from smoking for good.
Even if you do relapse, try not to get too discouraged. Very few people are able to quit for good on the first try. In fact, it takes most people several tries before they quit for good. What’s important is figuring out what helped you when you tried to quit and what worked against you. You can then use this information to make a stronger attempt at quitting the next time.