Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Giving Up Cigarettes: It’s All about Mindset

As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I chain-smoked 15 years of my life away. Drinkers and illicit drug users often remark how their recollection of the years spent consumed by their addictions is often hazy; for me the haze wasn’t metaphorical. Wherever I went a heavy haze reminiscent of London’s Great Smog of ’52 hung in the air. Sat too long in one place I could have blocked out the sun.

How did I give up?

Well, it wasn’t willpower…for me that is in short supply at the best of times. In fact, I’d tried to give up through willpower countless times…once a week on average, sometimes twice, for the best part of a decade. Through sheer force of willpower I’d sometimes manage to stay cigarette free for up to 4 hours…even when awake.

Hey, who says willpower isn’t effective?

Willpower, irony aside, is a lost cause; there are just too many demands on that precious resource already in our hectic, stressful lives. Maintaining the good nature of a friendly, civically minded member of society can be enough to entirely deplete daily supplies (for me at least). If willpower was a fuel, anything left over after running the ‘civility’ engine would be just vapours. Not enough to stop you picking your nose, never mind an all-consuming ‘cigarettes first, food, drink and oxygen later’ addiction.

No, I gave up not through the limited resource that is willpower, but primarily through a fundamental shift in mindset.

I went out of my way to transform my attitude towards cigarettes from one of bizarre affection, where I saw them as ever dependable little buddies who’d seen me through thick and thin, to a mindset that saw them for the cancer inducing, soul enslaving little incubuses of evil that they really are.

Adopting that mindset enabled me to throw off my susceptibility to missing, even fondly reminiscing about my little buddies (which I was prone to doing whenever we were parted for more than 5 minutes) and replaced it with a state of mind where I’d have been more inclined to try my luck with cyanide rather than risk smoking another cigarette…whatever craving induced physical discomfort I was going through at the time.

Believe me, approach quitting cigarettes with the right mindset and you’ll be armed with a weapon far more powerful than willpower. If willpower is a stick of TNT in the quitting arsenal, the right anti-cigarette mindset is an A-bomb.

The Mindset Foundation: Fear

Where to start? Well in my last article about quitting I emphasised how facing up to your darkest fears about smoking can act as a powerful motivator for quitting.

Start to truly fear smoking as I did in the weeks before I gave up and cigarettes rapidly metamorphose from friend, to frenemy to foe…to the point where, as I said above, sucking on paper thin glass vials of cyanide or juggling nitro-glycerine filled balls would seem more sensible, health conscious options.

Now before you think I’m about to launch into a long rant about the dangers of smoking, let me make one thing clear – I’m not going to patronize you here. I know that you’re just as aware of the dangers of smoking as I am. So no “Ooh…don’t you know smoking’s really bad for you?” type lecture from me.

The fact is I don’t need to bend your ear about the dangers, because the paradox is that smokers tend to be more aware of the potential health implications than anyone else; so much so in fact that the only way they can deal with all those harrowing stories and statistics whilst continuing to smoke is to subconsciously block them out of conscious thought.

Psychologists call it the ‘Boomerang’ effect – it’s the reason why TV adverts depicting tumours growing out of cigarettes may help to reduce the uptake of the habit, but they won’t help a smoker quit…they’ll just hit mute on the remote and block out the picture with the EPG. I did.

Burying our heads in the sand when confronted with an uneasy truth is unfortunately, an entrenched part of our psychological makeup; trying to press the message home further to an involuntary recipient just makes them dig a bigger hole in the sand to dive head first into.

But you do have a choice; you can if you wish drop the boomerang and confront reality head-on. And in so doing you’ll have taken the crucial first step in developing the resolute, craving resistant mindset needed to successfully quit.

Instead of relying on willpower to fight the incessant urge to give in to temptation (a losing battle); your willingness to face up to the reality of what could happen will actively draw you away from temptation.

Despite the cravings, you won’t want to smoke.

As I wrote about my previous article on quitting, by embracing the fear of smoking you’re able to harness a powerful form of motivation that’s in a different league to trying to give up through willpower alone.

Making Smoking Lifestyle Incompatible

Whilst tremendously helpful, fearing the consequences of smoking is however, just part of the jigsaw. Long-term freedom requires something more – a lifestyle shift that solidifies the non-smoker mindset.

Possibly not how I first approached it though…

A week to the day after I quit smoking I ventured out into the great outdoors for my first exercise in years – a modest (I thought) two mile run to the beach and back. I was unfit for sure, of that I was under no illusion; but the extent of my physical frailty truly took me by surprise. In fact, that run almost turned into a venture into the great unknown…it almost killed me.

After less than a mile of gasping for air and stumbling from foot to foot like an arthritic, asthmatic rhino, a tightness gripped my chest, which stopped me dead in my tracks. As if the fear of an imminent heart attack wasn’t enough excitement for one day, an accompanying bout of violent wheezing left a distinct taste of iron in my mouth – as if I was coughing up blood.

Whether or not my lungs had deteriorated to such a critical degree that they threatened to implode from the slightest aerobic exertion, or whether it was purely psychosomatic I’m not sure. It was however, an extremely alarming wake up call. As I stood there bent over double from exhaustion, a sense of fear and depression quickly conjoined with the delirium, as I contemplated the damage I’d inflicted upon my own body.

In those hard, reality-hitting moments I realised that I owed it to myself – in fact I had a responsibility – to take an active role in reversing the damage I’d done; and that any serious commitment to that mission would be entirely incompatible with cigarettes.

Active Participation

Of course, quitting alone massively improves your health – but it does so through an act of omission rather than through active involvement.

As I’d learned through countless failed attempts to quit cigarettes, simply not smoking is insufficient to induce the type of mindset you need to keep you permanently cigarette-free. Even a strong cigarette-fearing mentality can only get you so far if deep down you’re inclined to view your health with a general sense of complacent disregard.

If you continue to live a life of sedentary indulgence after quitting, how long exactly do you think you’ll stay cigarette free? The answer: Not long.

It’s another inescapable psychological fact that our behaviour is determined by our self-image. And because of the mental conflict that arises when there’s any sustained inconsistency between the two, you’ll still have a strong inclination to smoke until you fundamentally change your attitudes towards your body and your health.

In other words, smoking has to become fundamentally incompatible with your core values and your lifestyle.

A shift from a ‘health complacent’ to ‘health conscious’ mindset depends upon you taking a proactive interest in your health. You have to start taking active steps to repair the damage you actively inflicted upon yourself.

Fanaticism Not Required

Now don’t worry…I’m not suggesting that you need to become some sort of health crazed fanatic whose idea of a tasty snack is a few extra pumpkin seeds on their lunchtime lettuce leaf; or someone who’s so obsessed with exercise that they run the risk of wearing out not only their running shoes in the next few months, but their hip joints as well.

What’s more, I’m certainly not suggesting that you should start running, or engage in any form of vigorous exercise as soon as you quit (or ever). Whatever active steps you take have to remain well within your comfortable limits; and risking a heart attack through over exertion is insanity, not proactivity.

But with the health warnings taken care of, suffice to say that anyone can make a conscious commitment to actively improve their health…little by little…in an entirely non-fanatical way.

Hopefully you understand that I’m not saying, ‘It’s important to be healthy’ here; what I’m trying to drum home is that it’s through active involvement in your health that you’ll entrench an effective smoke-free mindset.

Using Your Body As Nature Intended…

Here in the UK, government guidelines state that healthy adults need about two and a half hours’ worth of moderate intensity aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking) or an hour and fifteen minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (such as running) per week. Wherever you are in the world I’m sure you’ll agree that’s not a particularly fanatical level of physical activity…we are, after all, physical beings. The only thing that has changed over the millennia is our environment, not our body’s intrinsic need for regular activity.

I mention those guidelines simply to give you an idea of the levels of physical activity needed to maintain a good overall standard of fitness. The real purpose of engaging in regular exercise after giving up cigarettes is, as I’ve said, primarily to transform your attitude towards your health: – to make you feel as if you’re investing in your health instead of destroying it; which as a fortunate by-product makes you considerately less inclined to relapse.

Intention, Consistency and Regularity

A really important key to success with this approach though, is to set aside specific time for regular exercise; time where your focus in placed squarely on improving your health  – regardless of how intense or how long you decide to exercise per session. The factors that help you to develop a health conscious mindset with exercise are intention, consistency and regularity; intensity and even duration are pretty much superfluous to requirements, particularly at the beginning.

If you can barely drag yourself up a flight of stairs without sharp pains shooting down your left arm, is it really likely that you’ll be able to walk briskly for 30 minutes 5 times a week? No, and it could be suicide. So don’t worry about intensity; and whilst duration acts as a good benchmark to work towards, don’t worry about that too much either. It’s all about staying firmly within your comfortable limits.

But regardless of your current level of fitness, you can still set aside specific activity time intended to improve your health, and you can commit to those regular exercise sessions consistently; even if that just means just a short, health focused, brisk walk to the end of your street and back on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

It’s a start and you can work from there – it’s the simple intention to actively work towards better health that’s the key.

By the same token, whilst you might spend an aggregate of two and a half hours a week rushing here-and-there on errands (and keep moderately fit doing so), you won’t develop anywhere near the same levels of health consciousness as if you set aside five 30 minute ‘exercise’ slots per week. That’s not to say you can’t legitimately double up walking the dog or cycling to work with your exercise slots, but to develop a health focused mindset, it’s vital to keep the primary focus of your exercise time firmly on your health.

Never lose the specific intention to exercise; lose that and it’s a slippery slope back into a health ‘unconscious’ mindset.

Staying cigarette free is built on the foundations of a health focused mindset; prioritising and committing to regular, health focused exercise is a key ingredient of those foundations.

If I’ve inspired you sufficiently here to give running a go, have a read of this short post How to Go From Couch to 5k in One Month by Anthony Mazzocchi. Tony offers simple, but sound advice as to how to gently ease into running over the course of a few weeks without burning out or feeling nauseous at the prospect of your next run.

Eat a Banana…or Five

Making small, manageable improvements to your diet is another great way to bolster your new health conscious attitude.

Without wanting to come across like a mere regurgitator of government guidelines, ensuring that you get your five portions of fruit and veg per day, every day, is a great way to start; and gradually work on from there.

Again, the intention isn’t to become a super healthy eater, whose penchant for celery sticks and carrots would out do Bugs Bunny; the intention is simply to develop an increasingly health conscious mindset that keeps you cigarette-free.

Living a life devoid of all your usual gustatory pleasures could well technically improve your health, but it’s pretty counterproductive if it drives you into a state of suicidal despair.

As with exercise, the goal with any dietary change is simply to deepen your sense of responsibility towards your health; not to become an ultra clean living, pavement pounding fitness fanatic.

Be Realistic, Act Normal, Be Content

To that end, there’s one important caveat: – Don’t make overwhelming lifestyle changes.

Giving up smoking is your primary focus here, not adopting an all pervading healthy lifestyle. If you try, I can guarantee you’ll fail. Adding to the pressure of quitting through additional deprivation or additional sweeping lifestyle changes is unrealistic…if not impossible. And the fact is it’s just not necessary.

Our mental resources are limited, particularly willpower. Overextend those resources through unrealistic or extreme overall improvements to your lifestyle and you’ll be back on the cigarettes, eating pizzas and spending your allotted ‘exercise time’ slouched in front of the TV within a week.

Take it from me: – Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.

Giving up smoking is a major lifestyle change and a major lifestyle improvement. It may feel like just one small step, but for your health it’s as giant a leap as Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon was for Mankind. Don’t trivialise what you’re doing, don’t try to do more – your success firmly depends upon keeping quitting your primary goal.

The core lesson is simple:

Cement your new smoke-free lifestyle with a firm commitment to slowly but surely improving your health through active steps. It’s through that commitment to an actively healthier lifestyle you’ll nurture a mindset that sees cigarettes as fundamentally incompatible.

No matter how addicted you believe you are or how impossible a feat giving up may seem, it’s a strategy that will, when you do take the plunge, do more than anything else to keep you permanently cigarette-free.

Take it from me: A compulsive chain smoker for fifteen years, cigarette-free now for coming on three. :-)


  1. Thanks so much for the shout out! The mindset piece that you mention is really key here. I smoked for quite a long time, and it wasn't until I became so mindful of what it was doing to my body that I became disgusted and went to change. What a great post!

    • Thanks Tony, nurturing that awareness really does seem to be the key to quitting; and the only way we seem to be able to achieve that is by making a concerted effort to counteract our default 'head burying' behaviour by taking a proactive interest in our health. I'm sure many will find your post on running very helpful; hopefully it will help a few prospective runners to avoid that other default human behaviour…the compulsion to launch into new pursuits like over zealous bulls at a gate. :-) Best wishes, Gareth