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Quitting Smoking, Willpower is the Key

by Ken Derow

Yes, while it may be a total cliché to call willpower the vital ingredient and most critical tool to employ in a smoker’s quest to quit smoking, it is completely true. People may question whether or not willpower is a real thing, or just a mental construct that lacks practical meaning outside of philosophical discussions of human qualities. However, existing and especially emergent research suggest that willpower is very real, and can often be the difference between our ability to accomplish our goals or fail to achieve them(1). How is willpower defined? One workable definition is that willpower is the exercise of self-control and self-restraint towards the realization of some intended behavior or desired behavioral modification.


Everyone can cite from personal experience or accounts in the media of individuals displaying great and sometimes seemingly unbelievable feats of willpower that allowed them to accomplish incredibly difficult tasks. You may think that willpower is an innate characteristic that people are essentially born with or born without. It is now very clear that willpower not only exists, but, it can be modified. We can strengthen our willpower and protect and nurture the willpower we possess to last longer and be available when we really need to use it. People can use their rational deliberate intent, supplemented and infused by our emotional subconscious, to bolster our willpower(2).


While willpower can be enhanced, it can also be depleted and “used-up” by physical and/or mental stress, e.g., the constant vigilance needed to thwart a temptation, control a habit or counter a behavioral tendency leads to a diminishment of our brain’s mental energy and this action simultaneously depletes sour willpower. When our willpower is diminished it becomes much more likely that we will give-in to a temptation, or engage in a behavior that we might otherwise wish to avoid. When we are stressed and our willpower is challenged, it can be recharged by various tactics. The most effective, in the short-run and the quickest route, is too consume a food with a high glycemic index that will be  converted to glucose in the body very rapidly and help to re-fuel the brain and re-energize the brain’s pool of mental energy. When this mental energy is re-charged, our willpower is re-energized as well(3).


Over the long-run an individual can employ certain recognized means to boost their mental energy and thereby maintain and/or boost their willpower as well. These mental energy boosters include(4):

* getting adequate sleep (7-8 hours form most people)

* getting adequate exercise (a regular routine of 150 minutes or more per week)

* maintaining a fairly steady level of sugar in the blood to avoid a blood sugar spike ands the subsequent blood sugar crash that follows

* reduce or avoid stressors you know affect you and be better prepared to handle the stress that you cannot avoid


minimize unnecessary drains on our mental energy reservoir by use of the following:

* use check-lists and other automatic reminder systems to remove unnecessary thoughts from your brain that drain your attention

* concentrate on single tasks, not multi-tasks that diffuse ones attention and stress the brain

* take regular “breaks” and distractions from intense thinking and concentration


Remind yourself daily of the reasons why you want to change or modify a behavior, or eliminate a habitual response


While you might find the previous list interesting, you might also wonder how this is directly linked to quitting smoking. It is very clear that smoking is a habit based on the twin physical and psychological dependencies formed by the smoking habit. These dependencies bond us to the habitual behavior, in this case smoking, by the power of our brains, and, it is only using the power of the brain that we can disrupt, break and sever that dependency for good. Our brains intent to quit smoking is manifested by our will and resolve to quit, and, everything the smoker can do to sustain and increase that will and resolve will materially aid him/her in the process of quitting smoking. It is only via our self-control as evidenced by our willpower and resolve to stop smoking that we can accomplish this goal and make it last a lifetime.


We all give willpower at least some “lip-service” as to its role in facilitating behavioral change, but few of us really fully understand or appreciate the critical role it plays in translating our intentions into actions. If willpower is the key to being able to quit smoking, a fair question is how we can use some of the information in this posting to provide practical tips or advice on helping the smoker to quit. What follows will speak to some practical implications.


For example, it is clear that the best and most effective use of willpower is to not rely on it for too long or too often, lest it become depleted and no longer optimally effective. For the smoker this means taking whatever actions you can to limited accessibility to smoking or relapsing after you have initially quit. This means doing all of the obvious things like having no cigarettes, no ashtrays, and no lighters in the house, car or office. It also means avoiding or minimizing situations where you typically smoke, or used to smoke. So, for the first few weeks, at least, it would be beneficial to avoid the social situations where smoking is almost automatic, like a party, dinner out with friends, or any situation where you are consuming alcohol.


It also means trying to avoid those psychosocial cues that so frequently trigger the “lighting-up” process. If you are a smoker you know what these are for you, but, for many smokers these include: drinking coffee, talking on the phone, going to the bathroom, driving a car, after sex and so forth,  No, you can obviously not avoid all of these activities all of the time, nor would you want to, but, you must be aware that they are semi-automatic events that often trigger your smoking, and, being aware of that, will lessen their ability to “cause” you to smoke.


The smoker can also reinforce their willpower and resolve to quit by focusing, daily, on the higher purposes for which you want to quit. This higher purpose may be to sustain your health and vitality for your children, or your partner, or any significant other. Focus on the core drives motivating you to quit.


If you have quit initially, or are trying for a while to just cut-back, you can also try a little mental “trick” that may help you to get through a rough patch where your willpower and resolve are waning. Do not dwell on the thought that you are giving up smoking forever, that is, for life. Think about simply not smoking for the next hour, or for this very day. Such re-framing of your thinking seems to make the “loss” a little bit easier to accept and allow the brain to focus more completely only on the moment at hand(5).


Finally, if you do succumb and light-up when you are trying to quit you can do the following. First, do not smoke the whole cigarette, take a puff or two and extinguish it. You do not have to smoke the whole thing. Keep in mind, that a relapse is very common and very human; do not use it as an excuse to tell yourself that you have failed so you may as well give-up on this particular quit smoking attempt. You can close your eyes, breathe deeply, count to ten, and, remember you are resolved to quit smoking, even if, you do not succeed without any set-backs.


Using the willpower your brain creates through rational thoughts and via your emotional subconscious can allow you to thwart the urges and cravings you may have to smoke. Willpower is vey real, it can be used up, but, it can also be nourished and increased. Using your willpower will allow you, the smoker, to translate your intent into actions that will greatly facilitate your quitting smoking for life.


(1) ”Willpower” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney and the book,”The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McConigal
(2) ”Willpower” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney and the book,”The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McConigal
(3) ”Willpower” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney and the book,”The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McConigal
(4) NY Times, “How to Boost Your Willpower,” Tara Parker-Pope, 12/6/07; “website, “lifehacker,” Adam Dachis, 5/17/11; the book,”Willpower” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney
(5) "Willpower,” by Baumiester and Tierney