Gretchen Rubin

Before & After: “The Thought of Smoking Made Me Sick.”

Before & After: “The Thought of Smoking Made Me Sick.”

I’m writing my next book, Better Than Before, 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.

(UPDATE: Better Than Before is now available and it was a New York Times bestseller.)

This week’s story comes from Stephanie Whitfield.

I had been a pack-a-day smoker for 5 years, starting on my 18th birthday. I knew it was unhealthy and I hated it: the smell, the taste, the need for something. I researched advice for quitting, and I attempted twice. The first time with nicotine gum I quickly gave up. The second try I thought I'd taper down until I completely stopped. Another failure. I had accepted it wasn't "the right time" for me and I'd try again in the future.

A few years ago while I was watching Sandra Bullock deservingly accept her Oscar for her performance in The Blind Side I started feeling ill. The details will be spared, but I had the norovirus.

The next few days were a haze. It was the worst I had ever felt in my life. When I was awake I cried until I could sleep again. Eventually, my body was dehydrated, and there were no more tears, or energy or anything. I felt like less than a zombie. Several days in, I forced myself to have a sports drink, and later that day I tried crackers. I was slowly nibbling on a saltine when I looked at my ashtray and realized I hadn't had a cigarette in three days. Out of habit, I reached for one but then stopped. The thought of smoking made me feel sick. I knew if I did smoke I would somehow feel worse than I already did. It was a light-bulb moment. I had just gone through the most pain and sickness I ever had in my life, and my "crutch" was going to make me feel worse. I threw out cigarettes, lighters, ashtrays. It initially was hard to get used to my day without cigarettes, but it got easier and easier.

Today I can't believe I ever smoked. Quitting led me to make so many more healthy changes with my diet and lifestyle. Breaking the smoking habit/addiction was the best thing I have ever done, and I'm so proud of myself.

My mother had a similar experience. She's always had a very strong sweet tooth, and a few years ago, she caught a terrible stomach flu, and when she at last recovered, she found that she’d lost her craving for sweets to a great degree.

Who knew that catching the flu  could offer these benefits?

These examples illustrate the Strategy of the Clean Slate. With this strategy, something happens to wipe the slate clean, and you have the opportunity to re-set your habits.

With both smoking and sweets, it would have been easy to slip back into former habits, but fortunately, both Stephanie and my mother realized that the clean slate offered an opportunity. (Note: moving is often a very effective clean slate.)

This fresh start is a crucial time, because it offers tremendous opportunity for forming new habits — but it can also pose great risk to existing habits that we want to maintain. It’s important to stay alert for signs of a clean slate, because too often, we fail to use the opportunity of a clean slate to form a desirable habit, or we fail to recognize that a clean slate is triggering a habit that we don’t want to form.

The positive effect of the clean slate can wear off, if we just re-write the same marks that were there before.

One popular and sneaky example of the Questionable Assumption Loophole is the belief that a habit has changed so deeply that we can break the habit without any bad effect: " I don't like smoking anymore, so it's okay for me to have one cigarette."  Very questionable.

It's great to take advantage of the Strategy of the Clean Slate, and to make the most of the running start it can provide for changing a habit.

How about you? Have you ever experienced a habit change after a clean slate? As I mentioned, moving is one of the most common times when this happens.

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The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t actOur Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding your Tendency lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively.

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