How I quit smoking (and why I don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions)

There are so many anti-smoking images on the Internet that I got annoyed and decided to find a pro-smoking one instead. This is as close as I could get.
There are so many anti-smoking images on the Internet that I got annoyed and decided to find a pro-smoking one instead. This is as close as I could get.

I’m astonished that it’s been two years since I quit smoking. It really does feel like yesterday. Sometimes I feel like I misplaced a whole year somewhere (roughly July 2011 to July 2012). Although I lived it and remember it (and plenty of great things happened during it), I sort of shuffled it into the wrong box somewhere, so that when I am mentally recapping my life, I always come up a year short.

For a long time, I didn’t even want to quit smoking. The thing about smoking is that it’s really enjoyable. You get to play with fire and smoke. The thick foggy sensation in your throat feels really good. You can use it to meet people (some of my best friends are old smoking buddies), and it’s also a good excuse to stand by yourself or to break up a conversation that’s getting stale. And, at least in the beginning, it has interesting psychotropic effects.

But it’s about as bad for you as anything it’s possible to do. There are numerous scheduled drugs (marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, and many prescription drugs) that are safer. Also, after awhile, it becomes a bit of a chore. Smoking when you want to is great. But having to smoke twenty times a day is less great. I think that for every smoker, there comes a time when quitting sort of starts to be on the agenda. I’m not actually sure when that time came for me. I moved from, “I’m not even thinking about quitting” to “I guess I’ll quit someday.” But still, I had no concrete plans for quitting and I never made any serious attempts to quit (except for one, in maybe July of 2009, that literally only lasted for twelve hours).

Anyway, what eventually happened is that in late February 2011, I read Jeff Vandermeer’s book on planning your writing career: BookLife. And that book recommended going through and plotting what projects you were planning on taking on in each of the coming months. So I went through and did that, and I realized that almost every month for the rest of the year was going to have a major writing project.* Obviously, I couldn’t quit smoking while I was in the middle of a project! It wasn’t until I had that thought that I realized quitting smoking was even on the agenda.

After thinking about it, I realized that the only space I’d left open in my agenda was right at that moment—I’d left open a three week period because I was about to switch apartments, and I didn’t want to begin a new project right before a major move. And that was the only room I had. If I didn’t quit smoking immediately, I wouldn’t have any room to do it until the year ended.

The next day, I bought some cranberry juice, some chewing gum, and some snacks. And that night I stayed up late (smoking three packs of cigarettes) so I’d be super tired the next day and would fall asleep easier. At about 3 AM, I smoked one last cigarette and destroyed my remaining ones. And then I went to bed.

Honestly, things were not that bad at all. I felt a bit disembodied for the next three days, but I wasn’t shaking and tingling and my heart wasn’t racing or all that. It was a very easy withdrawal. Over the next month, there was a little bit of forgetfulness and some bursts of irritation. But all in all, that was it.

The major thing that I learned from this experience was that if there’s anything I want to do, I should start doing it right now.

That’s why I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t believe in saving up my resolve for one day. Whenever I tip over that invisible threshold that separates a passing fancy from a real desire, I try to immediately begin taking some concrete action towards whatever I want. I’m not going to have any more time or energy on New Year’s Day than I do now. I think it’s really easy to daydream about how you’re going to spend this vast sum of time that you have in the future: all the days that you’ve yet to live. But really, most of that time is already allocated: you’re gonna be sleeping, working, eating, and recreating. Actually, the future contains no more free time than today. So if something’s worth doing, then it needs to be worth spending energy and effort on right now.

Of course, it’s also fine to daydream. I daydream about all kinds of stuff: writing screenplays and long-form essays and starting joke Twitter accounts and learning languages. But I don’t beat myself up because I’m not doing that stuff. The reason I don’t do those things is that right now they’re not as important to me as everything else in my life. It’s fine to let daydreams be daydreams. There’s no need to turn them into resolutions and then use them to torture yourself.

 

 

*Looking back at my plans for the rest of 2011, I can see that I actually accomplished almost none of what I’d set out to do: I abandoned the novel I was going to revise and I never attempted the screenplay I was going to write. Which is another example of what I was saying. I’d set aside my whole future to all these activities, but I refused to give them my present. Of course, since I spend my present quitting smoking (and, eventually, writing and revising a totally different novel), everything turned out for the best in the end.

8 thoughts on “How I quit smoking (and why I don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions)

  1. bradleyheinz

    Loving that blotter paper is getting pretty zen. All you have is now! Be here now.

  2. xan

    Very cool, your story bears out what we know about intertemporal decisionmaking. People tend to continually care a lot more about today than tomorrow, so if they can do anything tomorrow that they can do today, why bother doing unpleasant things today? Your situation set you up to overcome this procrastination, since you basically *had* to make a decision for the entire next year at the beginning of the year. “Do I want to smoke for this entire year, or not? I must decide that now…and an extra year of smoking is a big deal.” Versus “Do I want to smoke this year? An extra year of smoking is a big deal, but I can always quit next month, and what difference does a month make?”

    I imagine that if you have been smoking for 20 years, an extra year doesn’t even seem like a long time, in which case it must be even harder to quit.

    I do laundry *more* frequently when I am too busy to do it during the week. Actually our society’s weekday/weekend structure is very conducive to getting things done.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Actually, that’s really true. The weekend sets you up to decide: “Do I want this done this week or not?”

      What a fascinating outlook, Xan! I am floored by this perspective. Yes, that’s absolutely it. I had to decide whether I was going to quit this year or not. You should write one of those economic-thinking-in-every-day-life blogs.

      1. xan

        In lieu of such a blog, a hodgepodge of related observations about intertemporal decisionmaking:

        In the bigger picture, I wonder if there is some optimal structure of work vs. vacation time for my life. Busy week vs free weekend is good for accomplishing small/medium-sized chores and activities. The occasional 4-day weekend is good for accomplishing slightly larger tasks that don’t fit into a regular weekend. Having a month off once in a while would be good for traveling abroad. Having a year off once in a while would be good for some epic year-long project. It might be better to space work out over more years of life, instead of having a big retirement at the end. (Depends on the person. Depends on a lot of things.)

        That is also a reason to have a job, even if you don’t need one. People think that they would be so happy if they didn’t have to work. Other people tell them they are deluded, that working gives you a sense of purpose and accomplishment and you will feel empty without it. But it could also be said that even if work does not give you great satisfaction, you may still want to work because of what it does to the time you are *not* working.

        A New Years Resolution does sort of seem like an attempt to make a decision for an entire year right up front, but they often fail because you can’t *really* decide today how you’re going to behave 150 days from now. You could claim to decide, but when that day arrives you are always free to do something else. Without some way to commit to our future behaviors, we are slaves to procrastination.

        You may make an effort to go see a special exhibit in town for the weekend. But a special exhibit that’s here all year…even if you think it’s really worth seeing, you may continually put it off till the next week, until you forget about it entirely. In the extreme, people who grow up in interesting cities may *never* visit many of the attractions that would make Day 1 of any tourist’s agenda. There is never a reason to visit the Lincoln Memorial *today*.

        The way movie theaters operate — with a constant, revolving selection of movies you can see only for a limited time — makes people see more movies in theaters. I wonder if this is especially pronounced for the Oscar-winning types of movies that people always feel like they “should” see but never really want to at any given time. Going to a movie theater is exciting, there is an undercurrent of cultural urgency to it. Netflix is nice, and they sort of try to imitate this in ways, but it has a totally different feel with its vast collection to choose from. In another vein, it is strangely exciting when a song I know comes on the radio, even if it is a song I would *never* play on my iPod with its vast music collection, even if I *have* my iPod in my pocket when I’m listening to the radio. Bizarre.

        When food in my fridge starts drifting into “spoiled” territory, and I’m a little uneasy about eating it, I tend to just leave it in there a few more days (or, let’s be honest, weeks) until it’s definitely spoiled and I can confidently throw it away. But then why didn’t I just throw it away the moment I considered eating it and decided I would rather not? It was only going to get worse with time. The moment I decide not to eat it, I know that at all future dates I will also decide not to eat it.

        I modify your recommendation that “if there’s anything I want to do, I should start doing it right now,” in the following way: If there’s anything I want to do, which I’m even less likely to do tomorrow than today, then my decision today is really my decision for both today and tomorrow. If I’m not willing to do it today I certainly won’t be willing to do it tomorrow, when it will be even less attractive. So today is my one chance to actually do this, and I better take it.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          People say that stuff about work all the time, that they’d want to work, even if they didn’t have to, because it provides structure to the day. I _strongly_ disagree with this, both for myself and as a general principle. I think that if a person has a hard time accomplishing stuff in their free time, then that’s a problem they should just attack directly by learning how to use their time more effectively. I think it’s actually kind of sad to think that people really believe that they are so unable to use their free time effectively that it’s better to sign it over to someone else.

          Of course, there is an extent to which this belief is just a rationalization. The truth is that most people _do_ need to work, and that beliefs like this make that fact a little more palatable.

          For myself, I basically didn’t work for eighteen months when I was in Oakland and I was _extremely_ happy with it. Not only was it great to never have to do stuff that I didn’t want to do, I was also roughly twice as productive as when I was working. If you don’t work, you don’t have to work on your projects as if they’re your job, you just have to work harder on them than if you were working. I wrote and read about twice as hard during my off-year as I did during the years when I was working, and that _still_ left me with plenty of extra time.

          In the rest of my life, it’s my ambition to never again hold a regular 9-to-5 job.

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