Before and After: Use the Nuclear Option to Hold Yourself Accountable.

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Brian Carroll.

I picked up smoking when I studied abroad in Vietnam. The father of my host family didn’t speak English, but he smoked, so he encourage me to join him. Open to new experiences, I went from zero to a pack a day in one week.


That pack-a-day habit stuck with me for three years while I tried everything to quit smoking — set deadlines, cursed my lack of willpower, thought that switching to a tobacco pipe was somehow better. It was terrible.


Of the hundred ways I tried to quit, here’s what worked: I set a date in advance that held meaning for me (the one year anniversary of graduating college), I wrote out a long list of both the things I hated about smoking, and the things I loved about smoking (so I knew the tradeoffs), and then — what I consider the innovative part — I hand-wrote fifteen letters to friends and family members saying “If, after May 20, 2001, I ever smoke another cigarette, I will pay you $200.” I sent these letter particularly to friends who themselves were smokers.


When the date came, I gave away my remaining cigarettes, lighters and accessories. I scheduled new after-work activities to break up my routines for a couple of weeks. And I noticed a funny thing: my smoking friends, who had previously tried to lure me back to smoking in my earlier quitting attempts, were now constantly handing me cigarettes — then reminding me of the money I was going to pay them if I accepted the cigarette. “This cigarette will cost you $200” my friends would say. The letters had turned my enablers into enforcers. Needless to say, when that one cigarette would cost me $3000, it was easier to refuse it.


And that was it. I still love smoking, and really wish I could smoke. But I went from a pack a day to zero, cold turkey in May 20, 2001 and haven’t smoked again.

In Before and After, I identify the twenty-one strategies we can use to shape our habits, and this is a great example of the Strategy of Accountability. By recruiting others to hold us accountable, we increase our chances of success — of course, this is especially true for Obligers.

I call this dramatic kind of accountability measure — staking a lot of money on compliance with a habit — as  a “nuclear option.” A nuclear option is when there’s some major drawback to breaking a habit. For some people, this really helps.

A friend told me about how his mother used the nuclear option. “She gave up alcohol for a month, and if she had a drink before her time was up, she promised to give money to her grandsons to buy video games. She considers that a terrible waste of money.”

“Did she stick to it?”

“Yes, and it was funny to hear my nephews beg her, ‘Come on, Grandma! Have a drink!’”

You can set up a nuclear option online, using sites like

Also, it was a very good idea to give away anything that served as a smoking cue, such as cigarettes, lighters, accessories. — that’s the Strategy of Safeguards — and breaking up the routine — that’s the Strategy of the Clean Slate. I’ve noticed that when people conquer a challenging habit, often they’ve employ multiple strategies. We all need all the help we can get.

Have you ever used the nuclear option in the Strategy of Accountability to help yourself stick to a habit you wanted to shape? How?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I quit smoking on Washington’s Birthday Weekend in 1991. I had started smoking at the age of 34 while going through a divorce in 1983. Like the writer above, I went from zero to a pack a day in about a week. It was a symbolic activity-my life going ‘up in smoke.’ I tried quitting several times, once for almost a year. Then I went to work in an open office full of smokers, and went quickly back to a pack a day. I rationally hated my habit, its cost, and the stench. Not to mention what it did to my singing voice.

    I finally quit cold turkey, very suddenly. I found myself at a work executive meeting, out in the hall with the only two other smokers–a grim and grizzled old Sergeant Major and another equally smoke-wasted looking guy. It just felt really bad to be out there with people who had surrendered their looks and probably also their basic health to cigarettes, and I resolved to quit.

    I told my friends that I was going to give a big party if I made it through a whole year without cigarettes. That objective–to be able to celebrate with my friends in a big way if I made it–somehow kept me going through that whole year. I found I had to ‘quit again’ every time I found a packet of matches in a jacket pocket, or ate dinner in a restaurant where I had last been when I was still a smoker. To this day, seeing a person light up on the big screen still gets to me–so glad smoking in movie theaters is against the rules!

    The prospect of a celebration was hardly the nuclear option, but again, a promise to myself to be able to do something for and with my friends was very powerful for me.

    • Lynn

      That’s a great story Penelope. It sounds like you found a positive nuclear option. That’s very inspiring because your success meant many people got a reward. You knew if you failed that everyone would be let down, but if you succeeded everyone you like would be able to celebrate with you. That is a very powerful approach.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        Thanks so much! It’s one to remember . . and I guess my challenge these days is to find ways to reward myself and treat my friends without using too much food!!!

  • BKF

    Good for you Brian and Penelope! I also have a smoking story. My husband used to smoke in his late teens (smoking is still very prevalent in Europe, unfortunately.) Then in his early twenties, he got pneumonia and was hospitalized. He never smoked again – during or after his hospitalization (thankfully!) He is now in his forties. I think he is an Upholder by the way.

  • Laura Morrison

    Here is something that might interest you. A friend gave up a life-long smoking habit by PRETENDING to be a non-smoker! She spent some time studying the daily habits of her non-smoking friends and then imitated them. I thought that was a very creative way to break a habit! It worked. She finally was able to quit.

    • BKF

      I guess it boils down in a way to your identity. I try to make my kids see themselves as what I want them to be. (“Remember you are a problem-solver” if they are frustrated and impatient about something or “Remember you are kind and loving” when they fight with each other. Hopefully it will become part of how they see themselves and be able to choose better behavior in the future….

  • Linda

    On the radio on Radio Lab I heard a woman who had been a smoker years ago say that the way she finally quit was to promise a friend that if she ever smoked another cigarette, she would give the friend $2000, which the friend would then promptly donate to the KKK. The smoker, hating the KKK as she did, could never bring herself to smoke again (even though she came close), knowing what a terrible organization she’d be supporting. A very clever and practical approach that worked!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Wow, Gretchen. This post, and my memory of what I did about smoking, have led me to an entirely new perspective on my recently adopted eating regime. Never mind having a number on the scale as the goal. How about getting 23 years down the road (if I live so long) and still be consciously managing my eating and exercise? My previous weight loss efforts have failed precisely because I was focused on the weight loss ‘goal’ rather than on the continuation of a healthy regime. I had the ‘secret’ in my own history, and did not recognize it!!!

    Now I am working to think of a way to celebrate being on a positive food and exercise regime for a year (coming up 10/3/2014). Thank you for the opportunity to have this insight.

    • BKF

      Well-done, Penelope! it seems to me that since for highly addictive things like smoking and narcotic drugs, abstaining is the best and most efficacious way to successfully quit, perhaps there IS something to be said for being an abstainer for other things like certain food categories. Even if it is not “Nuclear abstinence,” rather than using self-control to be a moderator…

      • BKF

        i know abstain and quit are basically the same thing, i didn’t say what i meant clearly…..

        • Penelope Schmitt

          Thanks for your encouraging words!

          Yes, food has always been problematic because you’ve got to eat–but you don’t have to eat EVERYTHING. I pretty much abstain from a lot of things that are mostly carbohydrates–sugared sodas, white potatoes, white bread, sweet desserts only on VERY special occasions, and the like.

          For me the challenge is to avoid breaking down and eating everything in sight and then give up–I believe that maintaining a regime of not overeating and not eating foods that are unhealthy for me month after month, year after year + a healthy level of activity, is really where my focus needs to be.

          The weight loss will happen as time goes by–just as the deficits caused by smoking disappeared pretty completely over time.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    One more comment . . .

    There IS a ‘Nuclear Option’ waiting for me and for many who struggle with long term bad habits. This takes me back to your loophole series and the ‘it doesn’t count’ loophole, in which YOU don’t choose to count but your body, bank account, credit rating, relationships, job, driver’s license count anyway.

    The nuclear option for me? Back to the higher doses of medication and the sleep apnea machine because my weight and size would again make me unhealthy, and maybe some other more serious health consequences even than that. There are NATURAL ‘Nuclear Options’ waiting for us all who refuse to stop heading in the wrong direction.