As a kid, I remember stealing my father’s cigarettes to have a sniff at them. I’d roll them around in my palms, smelling the faint scent of tobacco on my hands even hours after I’d thrown the cigarettes into the bin.
I was curious, but certainly never under any peer pressure to smoke. My friends were not the smoking types and I was not one to succumb to influence anyway. If anything, I was more likely to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing.
I thought to myself (and I might have stupidly proclaimed it to people) that I would never smoke, drink or party. These things are pointless, and they are for losers.
Well, cue the thunder and lightning. I went completely the opposite way in my late teens and early twenties and was forced to learn how to break my habits before they killed me.
Where it All Went Wrong
I started working in bars at the age of 16 in various capacities, and what do people who work in bars do on their days off? They go to bars and clubs of course. With that kind of lifestyle, it wasn’t long before smoking and drinking became my regular habits — even when I wasn’t out partying.
When I think back on those times now, I realize that the smoking, the drinking and the partying were just coping mechanisms.
I was a young girl working to make ends meet, my parents had split up and we were all living apart with no one to fend for my sisters and me. These things became a crutch for my existence.
I thought I had my future all planned out. Alas, family circumstances forced me to rethink my future and suddenly I wasn’t so sure where I was heading.
Other than being an emotional crutch, the smoking, the drinking and partying became so ingrained in my identity too. Without them, I wasn’t sure I was capable of being interesting to anyone — least of all to myself.
Eventually, my moment of reckoning came on a Thursday morning after a particularly heavy ladies’ night drinking on Wednesday evening. My boss told me rather sharply to head home for the day because I still stunk of alcohol and he even asked whether I was still drunk — at 9am in the morning.
I felt like crap both physically and emotionally from the shame of being told off like a child. I was thoroughly disappointed with myself.
You see, I’ve always been a person who prides myself on discipline and providing a very high standard of work. Perhaps that's also why I took my partying habits so seriously.
After shamefully heading back home, I had a long hard look at myself in the mirror and decided the booze needs to go — once and for all.
Not just because I didn’t like being told off, but because I was aware that my work was now also being affected and I wasn’t proud of my behavior when I was tipsy or drunk.
Rethink Your Identity and Disregard the Naysayers
To change my bad habits, I had to rethink who I was and the person I wished to be.
Stopping drinking was easy enough because I wasn’t around booze all day long. By this time I’d also quit my part-time bar work and chose to focus on a corporate career.
The difficulty in going teetotal wasn’t the habit itself, it was the negative reaction from the people around me. Men, especially, had a real problem with me not drinking alcohol. I received all sorts of jibes about it like my mocktails being called pussy juice because going teetotal was such a girly thing to do.
At that time, I shrugged it off as people were just doing what they do, but I realized years on that when you make any big changes in your life, the people around you get pretty defensive about it.
I don’t think it was any malice on anyone’s behalf, I just think it was societal conformity that signaled to some that this new behavior is weird and goes against everything we know to be true.
Even though I received a negative reaction when it came to being teetotal, I stuck to my guns. Next, I just had to tackle my smoking habit.
Ugly pictures on cigarette boxes did not deter me one bit. I had to find a bigger purpose.
The Purpose Needs to be Meaningful Enough
By this time, I was married, and it was and still is the best marriage I can ever hope for. My husband and I, we are soulmates.
He’s not a smoker and was very patient with sitting in smoking zones when we went out and dealing with the stale cigarette smells that permeated every nook and cranny of our bedroom, clothes, bed and oozing out of my every pore.
Early on in our marriage, I knew this couldn’t have been pleasant for a non-smoker and that gave me a much bigger incentive to quit — as well as the obvious health benefits.
To quit smoking, however, proved to be harder than quitting alcohol. Smoking was not as easy to avoid as alcohol because cigarettes were very much a part of my routine. In fact, I made a lot more friends crowding around the bin with the ashtray than I did anywhere else.
Afternoon rolled along and another cigarette would stave off the lull, and into the evening, straight after work, another was smoked to celebrate the end of another day at the office. Let’s not even talk about going out.
Whether it was for lunch, coffee or dinner, I would always scramble to find myself seats in the smoking zone. Smoking was a huge part of my life.
Changing Your Day-to-Day
Routine, I decided was the key. I had to build a new one. I had to retrace the parts of my daily routine that involved smoking and replace or remove them altogether.
I’m an all or nothing kind of gal, so cold turkey was always the only option. I never thought about cutting down, I just decided not to get any at all.
I knew that if I had half a pack of cigarettes lying around, I would have found it impossible not to finish it. As the days went by it got easier and easier to not even think about smoking. The devil releases its grip over time.
Eventually, over the course of a few months, I had quit smoking completely and barely drank. As I write this now, it’s been almost 10 years since I smoked cigarettes and I can’t remember the last time I drank alcohol.
And, if I might say so myself, I’m no more boring than I was before — drink or not.
The Four Things You Need to Break a Bad Habit
From my experiences with drugs, there are four key things you need to break a bad habit — whether it’s eating junk food, social media addiction or smoking cigarettes.
- A purpose. A big enough why. If you recall, I stopped drinking because I didn’t like the fact that it affected my work and my behavior. I stopped smoking because of health benefits, of course, but the biggest motivation to stop came from the knowledge that my bad habit was nasty for my husband. You need to have a good enough reason, otherwise, you’ll just give up.
- Change your routine. You need to form a new routine to replace your current one, which involves the bad habit. One of the things I enjoyed was smoking after lunch — a little bit of chill out time before heading back to the office. I replaced that with pastimes like getting a hair wash at the salon (because their head massages were the best) and taking a nice casual walk around a nearby park. Change up your day-to-day structure. Make it really difficult to continue with your bad habit.
- Figure out what works for you. You need to know what works for you. For example, cutting down on anything is not an option for me because I’m a cold turkey kind of girl. For you, it might be the other way round. Be honest with yourself. Try different methods until you discover the approach that maximizes your chances of success.
- Get to know your values. Think about who you are and what you’re all about. Partying was so ingrained in my identity that years on, people still tell me they’re shocked that I don’t smoke or drink because I “look” like I do. You need to decide on what matters to you — your values. I felt like the partying made me a more interesting person and helped me to fit in. When I made the departure from it, it meant shifting my sense of identity entirely — to one that preferred a healthy lifestyle and one going to the gym in the morning and not nursing a hangover.
The Choice is Yours
At the end of the day, you are in complete control of your habits, and with a little bit of reverse engineering, you can definitely break them.
It isn’t just about willpower. It’s about creating a system for positive change.
The biggest mistake you can make is not trying at all.