Finding Leverage #1: Smoking

I’ve never been a smoker, so feel free to ignore everything after the first letter in this sentence. I do know a thing or two about compulsion, however, and I’d like to expound upon my lever post from yesterday with an example that might help clarify some things.

I learned it from watching you! Anyone remember that commercial?
daveograve@, from flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

In order to work with a negative habit, you need two things: a crack, and a lever. The “lever” is nothing more than the proper motivation to change, something that resonates with you. The “crack” is any point in your cycle of negative behavior that is vulnerable. Both are absolutely vital. Imagine hitting a boulder with a crowbar versus sticking it in just the right crack and, as if by magic, watching the rock split in two.

So, hypothetical smoker, or anyone interested in behavior modification, let’s find your crack.

This can be tricky, because you might have been trying to use willpower to force yourself to stop smoking at the point when you most crave a cigarette. That’s not a crack, that’s the point where the rock is strongest. Oh, and willpower is bullshit. More on that later.

The best crack was right after your first cigarette, back when smoke tasted terrible and your neurotransmitter receptors hadn’t reconfigured themselves around fresh hourly waves of nicotine. Any little push could have dissuaded you at that exact moment, making it the perfect place to stick a lever. How does that help you now? Well, it doesn’t, so maybe I’m kind of a jerk. What to do then?

Look for any remaining cracks. When is your habit vulnerable to subterfuge? When can you set a plan in action to completely circumvent the need for willpower?

  1. Have you recently gone a day without a cigarette, even if by accident? What were the circumstances? If it’s because of being in the hospital, maybe move on to number 2.
  2. Your cravings don’t come out of nowhere. They’re partially tuned to physical stimuli (low nicotine levels in your blood produce symptoms), but there’s a huge learned element. When do the cravings appear, and can you avoid those situations?
  3. Do you engage in any other, more positive behaviors that can let you go for long periods without nicotine?
  4. Can you replace your nicotine delivery device?

Number 4 is a new one. I mean, the gum and the patch have been around for a while, but… meh. Not satisfying, not a good replacement for the behavioral components of smoking, and often just not a great way of getting what your brain says you need. As much as I wanted to huff and pshaw when they first came out, e-cigarettes seem to be a safe way of getting nicotine into your blood. Studies are still being done, but the delivery system now seems to be a suitable crack.

Hopefully you’ve identified a time when you can make some change happen. Now you just need the right lever.

Willpower might work, but probably not. You’ve tried guilt and self-recrimination, but those can die in a ditch. Maybe you’ve tried quitting with someone. That one’s interesting, and you’re definitely on to something.

We are social animals. The strongest reinforcers and punishers in psychology are based on praise and scorn, with money and electric shock, respectively, being close contenders. If you want to get something done, having some buddies along to cheer you and subtly punish you can get the job done.

If you’re on your own, it might have to be something else. What motivations resonate with you? Independence? Health concerns? Cash money? Meditate on it, and see if your brain supplies anything that glows like a neon sign (more on this later). Read some related self-help books and snatch out what works. Just remember: Once you find the right motivator, stick it where it counts.

Smokers: Am I full of it? Ex-smokers: Is there anything to my talk of cracks and levers?

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