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.
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 Better Than Before, 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 StickK.com.
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?