Quitting Smoking Is Hard, Becoming A Non-Smoker Is Not

David Noël
Jan 11, 2016 · 7 min read

I was a perfect smoker:

  • I started young — at the age of 15 or 16, if I remember correctly.
  • For many years, smoking a cigarette was the first thing and the last thing I did every single day. No exceptions.
  • For over a decade, I smoked about 30 cigarettes a day. A day!
  • I was known for always carrying cigarettes. Some friends even admitted that they didn’t buy cigarettes because they knew I’d always have some.
  • I considered smoking a cigarette the highlight of a great meal.
  • I was loyal to one cigarette brand in a way I wasn’t to any other brand of anything.

Put simply, I loved smoking. I was convinced that it made me more attractive, more rebellious, and that smoking helped me fit in with people I wanted to hang out with.

Of course, aside from loving cigarettes, I was addicted to them. Nicotine is a powerful little devil. I tried to quit twice and failed.

I was what they call a “heavy smoker”. So was my mom. She died unexpectedly and suddenly in the early morning hours of November 11, 2012. The cause of her death has not directly been linked to the smoking, but it was clear that the smoking had affected her health.

In January 2013, I travelled to a small eco hut resort and a deserted beach along the Caribbean coast in Colombia. It was the first time since my mom passed that I had been by myself. It was hard. The support of family and friends had kept me in a haze and had distracted me from dealing with the pain of the loss. Now, I cried a lot. I slept a lot. I wrote a lot. I smoked a lot. The pain was a pain that I had never felt before. It had no measure. It was a new pain. It was like feeling all the feelings, and all the emotions all at the same time, in a constant non-orchestrated overdrive.

Thinking It Through

It was a new year. It was Year One without my mom. My thoughts steered away from new year’s resolutions. I had always been bad at defining — and more importantly sticking to — resolutions. So I never defined them in the first place.

A question kept bugging me that I’d asked a friend a few days earlier: “Can you train willpower?”. Her answer was that if you think of willpower as a muscle, you can in fact train it.

To me, quitting smoking had always been a question of willpower. Turns out that was only half of the truth.

From willpower, I moved on to listing a set of personal growth challenges. They included the usual classics of new year’s resolutions, including “quit smoking”. I moved it to the top of the list. It felt uncomfortable and scary.

To quit smoking.

The Breakthrough

How could I be successful at quitting a habit that I loved, and a habit that I was addicted to? A habit that I had tried and failed to stop twice before.

And then It hit me.

It was not about changing a habit, it was about changing who I am.

Smoking was part of my identity. I was known for it. It was who I am. I was a smoker.

I started another list and wrote down what kind of person I wanted to be in the future. The list included many traits and habits of a person I could imagine myself to be one day. Nowhere on this list did it say “smoker”.

I was on to something. Our identity defines our behaviors. Who we are defines what we do. My future self was not a smoker. Hence, I would not smoke. But which future? Short-, mid-, or long-term future?

The answer: January 11th. Three months to the day after my mom had passed. I had 5 days. It was an important date. It would be the day that I would transform my identify from smoker to non-smoker. It was exhilarating and excruciating at the same time.

Enter willpower. Willpower became my companion to prepare to become a non-smoker. I defined micro-goals: I started with an allowance of 5 cigarettes that I could smoke at specific times throughout the day. Every day, I removed one cigarette from the allowance. I decided that I would smoke the last cigarette in a small ceremony on the beach on my last night as a smoker.

I smoked my last cigarette in the evening on January 10th. The next morning I woke up a non-smoker.

Anticipating Obstacles

That day, I woke up proud and determined. I was convinced that if I could make it through this first day, every next day would be possible too.

One thing that smokers will tell you is that they love smoking when they drink alcohol. People who usually don’t smoke will smoke the occasional cigarette in social situations from time to time. I knew that the combination of cigarettes and alcohol was a great one so I wanted to stress-test my new identity by putting myself out there.

I was still in Colombia and joined a group of backpackers out to party. We drank and we laughed and we danced. People around me smoked. Many did. I became more aware of people smoking. Only a few days prior and I would have smoked to enjoy the party. That night, though, was different. I sat there, smiling, realizing that I was a non-smoker now and that I was enjoying the party regardless.

Shortly after midnight I went to bed. I had made it through my first day (and party!) as a non-smoker.

Another thing that smokers say is that they fear that they will gain weight by compensating the loss of cigarettes with more food or candy. Knowing that, I overcame this fear by working with a trainer to design a nutrition and exercise plan for the next three months. Working with somebody was key because it made me accountable to myself and my trainer.

The Impact

A week after becoming a non-smoker, I had almost forgotten that I used to smoke 30 cigarettes a day. Two weeks later, it was strange to think that I had ever been a smoker.

My cough disappeared, my immune system got more resilient, my skin started to look healthier. I could breathe. Exercising became easier, fun even.

Life got simpler; I did not have to worry about carrying cigarettes. No need to inhale 2–3 cigarettes in a row before entering an airport or having to deal with the anxieties of a long-haul flight. Enjoying a meal at a restaurant was not interrupted by cigarette breaks. It was liberating.

Most importantly, I had discovered something about myself that I didn’t believe to be true: that I have the ability to change for the better. And most surprisingly, I am still shocked about how easy it turns out to have been.

Becoming a non-smoker has unlocked more potential for change. I apply the same principle (“define your identity and the habits will follow”) in other aspects of my life (more on that in a future post).

On this day today three years ago, I became a non-smoker. That’s more than 30,000 cigarettes not smoked! I have not craved a cigarette once. I will not smoke a cigarette again. Because I am a non-smoker. And non-smokers don’t smoke.

Ten Steps to Becoming a Non-Smoker

If you too want to become a non-smoker, here are the following 10 steps that worked for me:

  1. Write about yourself in the third person. List who you want to be in the future.
  2. Select the one thing that feels scariest and most uncomfortable: “be a non-smoker.”
  3. Describe and visualize the behaviors of that person — what they do and don’t do.
  4. Pick a day in the near future. If you can, pick a symbolic date — it’s motivating.
  5. Train your willpower: set a daily allowance of cigarettes for specific times of the day. Enjoy them consciously. Remove one each day.
  6. Address all your inner voices and “What Ifs?” head-on: what if I gain weight? What if I drink? What if I just smoke one here and there? Become aware of them by writing them down. The voices are just that… voices.
  7. Come the day, celebrate your last cigarette. Don’t be scared, everything will be all right. Congratulations, you are a non-smoker now.
  8. Put yourself in social situations in which you enjoyed smoking. Become aware of the situation and start noticing how you are a different person now. Feeling proud? You can be!
  9. Find something that you enjoy to compensate. For me it was learning about nutrition and exercise. I worked with a personal trainer for 10 sessions before going solo. And in my second year as a non-smoker, I ran three half marathons!
  10. When in doubt, remember the core principle: who you are defines what you do.

If I could do it, anyone can.

A big Thank You to Jean Edelstein and Diana Kimball for the feedback and help on this post.

David Noël

Written by

Former VP at SoundCloud, I currently advise startups on culture, communication, and community. Co-Creator of the @rolemodels events and podcast host.