How to Quit Smoking: Taking the First Steps and Strategies for Staying Smoke Free
It's easy to want to quit smoking, but taking action on that desire is much more difficult to do. Luckily, experts have come up with a wealth of tips, guidelines, and step-by-step instructions you can follow when you're ready to take those first steps.
In this final installment of our three-part quit-smoking guide, we're going to show you how to put all the different pieces—quit-smoking tools, medications, coping strategies, etc.—together into a successful quit-smoking strategy.
Then, we'll show you how to turn that plan into action and finally quit smoking for good. Well also introduce you to a variety of helpful techniques you can use in your day-to-day life to keep yourself focused and committed to staying smoke free.
We'll cover everything from how to plan your quit day and how to make it through quit day without smoking, to how simple strategies like knowing your triggers and practicing self-care can help you stay on track.
By the end, you should have all the information and resources you need to take your goal to stop smoking—and stay quit—from theory to reality.
Strategies for Staying Smoke Free
We talked a lot in parts 1 and 2 of this guide about resources and tools to help you quit, but we haven't talked much about strategies you can use when you're on your own. After all, even if you have outside assistance, it still takes a lot of personal effort and willpower to stop smoking.
In order to succeed, you'll need some solid strategies for managing temptations and keeping yourself on track. Luckily, there are are many proven methods and simple techniques you can use to resist cravings and adjust to living smoke free.
These strategies are recommended by experts and ex-smokers who have used them before to successfully stop smoking. If you learn those same techniques and how to apply them to your life, you'll be more resilient to relapse and better equipped to handle life in general after you quit.
Get Rid Of Smoking Reminders
If you're a regular smoker, there's a good chance you have smoking-related paraphernalia in various places around your home, car, workplace, and other places you frequent. These simple items, which include things like cigarettes, cigarette boxes, matches, lighters, ashtrays, and any other items that remind you of smoking, can trigger strong temptations if you see them after you quit.
That's why you should take the time to get rid of all these things before the day you decide to stop smoking. It will not only help you with cravings, but it will be more difficult to slip up or relapse if you don't have easy access to cigarettes, lighters, and other smoking tools.
You should throw away your cigarettes, get rid of all your ashtrays and lighters, and re-arrange any indoor and outdoor spaces that are arranged to facilitate smoking. You'll be more likely to succeed in quitting if you can go about your day without seeing constant reminders of when you used to smoke.
Take it One Day at a Time
If you think about whether or not you can quit smoking forever, it may feel like an impossible task. But if you think about whether or not you can abstain from smoking today, then that probably feels more achievable.
That's why it's best to focus on one day at a time when you make a major lifestyle change like quitting smoking. Otherwise, you can get overwhelmed and discouraged by the enormity of the task.
It's no secret that quitting smoking is a long, hard journey, but it's made up of small, simple steps, and you only have to take one step at a time. Just like any other big, long-term project, it's much more manageable if you break it down into smaller chunks.
In this case, instead of thinking about the entirety of what “quitting smoking” entails, it's better to think about the individual steps you can take each day to abstain from smoking. Instead of trying to take in the whole picture, focus your efforts on individual tools and techniques you can use to make it through this moment or this day.
Doing that allows you to focus on the small things you can do, instead of worrying about the larger things you think you can't do. If you ground yourself in the here and now, you can put all your energy into building the skills you need to handle the challenges that come in the future.
That's why it's so important to have a quit-smoking plan in place before the day that you quit, one that includes plenty of simple, practical strategies you can use to manage cravings and keep yourself on track. Then, when your quit day comes, following through can be as simple as following the steps already laid out in your plan.
Let the present “you” deal with present day problems and cravings, and leave future worries and cravings for future “you” to deal with. You can't predict or control what will happen in a week or a month or a year from now, but you can take actions each and every day that put you on a path to success.
Whenever you get the desire to smoke a cigarette, remind yourself that all you have to do is make it through one craving at a time. If you feel discouraged or overwhelmed, just focus on not smoking today; you can deal with tomorrow when it comes.
Celebrate the Small Victories
In the same vein as taking it one day at a time, it's important to take the time to acknowledge each bit of progress you make. Every day you don't smoke is a success worth celebrating, and recognizing this can help you stay motivated to abstain another day.
Quitting smoking isn't just a one-and-done thing; it's a journey that requires you to wake up every morning and re-commit to not smoking. There will never be a definite endpoint to celebrate once and for all, which is why you should celebrate each and every day that you manage to stay smoke free.
Whenever you successfully use a strategy to defeat a cigarette craving, take a moment to acknowledge the victory. When you make it through a whole day without smoking, pause to reflect on how far you've come before moving on to face the challenges of another day.
When you acknowledge and track your achievements, even the little ones, it helps you build confidence and fight off discouraging feelings. It will help you trust that the skills and confidence you build through small, incremental steps will carry you on to the next success and your next smoke-free day.
You should even plan out some rewards you can give yourself once you reach certain milestones and goals, such as one day, one week, or two weeks smoke-free. Those rewards can be as simple as watching a favorite movie or getting a favorite meal, or treating yourself to a luxury like a fun purchase or massage.
For example, you could put all or some of the money that you save from not buying tobacco products in a special reward fund for yourself. At the end of the week (or after you reach one of your milestones) you can then use that money to splurge on something for yourself, such as going out to do something fun or buying something new.
Here are some ideas for fun things you can do to reward yourself for staying smoke free:
- Buy some new supplies for a hobby you enjoy (e.g. a new video game, sporting equipment, cookware, or crafting supplies)
- Pamper yourself by getting a massage, going to a nail parlor, or going to the salon
- Plan a fun night out with your family or friends
- Plan a cookout, movie night, or other celebration with family or friends
- Go shopping for a new outfit or something else you look forward to buying
- Go on a day trip to a place you enjoy
When you rely on cigarettes to feel good every day, quitting can make you feel like you've lost something important. It can be difficult to cope with everyday stressors when you don't have your usual smoking habits to fall back on as a coping mechanism.
After all, many people smoke as a source of comfort and as a way to relieve stress. Because of this, when you quit, you will need to find new, healthier ways to find comfort in your daily life.
One way to do this is by practicing self-care, which essentially just means taking the time to look after your personal needs. However, it's more than an abstract concept; self-care is all about taking specific and deliberate actions for your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
For example, one way you can practice self-care is by scheduling more “you time” every week. It could also mean taking action in an area of life you want to improve, such as learning to cook, joining a gym, or spending more time with family and friends.
Practicing self-care actions is a wonderful habit to start as soon as you quit, especially since you can use it to fill up the extra time that you used to spend smoking. It's also a great way to reduce anxiety, boost your mood, and distract yourself from the desire to smoke.
In some cases, self-care means saying no, or not doing certain things that affect your mental or physical health in a negative way. For example, you could take steps to eliminate unnecessary stressors from your life, or make the decision to cut specific items from your busy schedule in order to make room for other needs.
As you can see, self-care is a personal thing that requires concentrated effort, careful planning, and honest introspection. However, the reward for all that work is feeling better and living healthier every day.
Your self-care activities should be tailored to you, your lifestyle, and your unique personal needs. In order for them to be effective, you'll need to spend some time thinking about yourself and your routine before you choose for what kinds of self-care activities are right for you.
Think about the things that cause you stress and hinder you the most in everyday life. Then, think of some thinks in your life that you'd like to improve, and come up with some ideas for how to make some positive changes.
Then, take the time to write down some concrete physical, mental, and emotional self-care goals; for example, you could strive to de-clutter your living space, spend more time on hobbies, or think more positive and uplifting thoughts throughout the day. Along with each goal, include a list of at least a couple specific actions you can take toward achieving it.
Here are some general self-care ideas to help you get started.
Self-care for Physical Needs:
- Take a quick walk around the block to stretch your legs and breathe some fresh air.
- Make time in your schedule to prepare healthy, nutritious meals and snacks.
- Stand up and stretch your body throughout the day.
- Spend a few minutes in the sun to relax and soak up some Vitamin D.
- Reduce stress by changing into some soft, comfy clothes that make you feel good.
- Give yourself some extra time to sleep by taking a nap, going to bed early, or scheduling some time to sleep in.
- Take a relaxing shower or bath and lounge around after.
- Free up some time by choosing one task or commitment on your schedule that you can remove, delay, or delegate to someone else.
- Take just one small step toward completing a project, goal, or errand you've been putting off (e.g. cleaning out your fridge or making a healthy lifestyle choice)
Self-care for Mental and Emotional Needs:
- Take some time to journal about your thoughts, worries, or things you are grateful for.
- Spend time outdoors in a green space like a park or hiking trail.
- Make a playlist of some of your favorite songs to relax and enjoy when you need a mood lift.
- Have a “date night” with yourself to do anything you'd like to do, e.g. watch TV, rent a movie, order takeout, read a book, play video games, work on a hobby, etc.
- Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel (happy, sad, anxious, angry) without any judgment or reservations.
- Schedule some quiet down time during the day to read, meditate, or just sit around and do nothing.
- Take care of one thing in your home or your life that is bugging you (e.g. a cluttered closet, a disorganized cabinet, or a lightbulb that needs to be replaced).
- Spend some time with friends or family that care about you.
- Place several notes of affirmation and encouragement around your house, car, and workspace.
- Ask someone you trust for some help or support, whether you need some advice, encouragement, or just need someone to listen.
- Make a list of all your worries, fears, and other things that are bothering you to get them out of your head.
- Make a list of some of your good qualities and things that you like about yourself to remind yourself whenever you feel insecure or discouraged.
Try a New Hobby
When you're trying to get rid of a bad habit like smoking, it often helps to replace it with something new. That's why you should consider starting a new hobby or activity on or before your quit day.
Working on a new hobby can help you cope in a variety of ways; it serves as a distraction from nicotine cravings, can act as a form of self-care, and it gives you something to do with your extra time. If you can find a hobby you really enjoy, it can also give you something (in place of smoking) to think about and look forward to every day.
Learning a new skill or activity can also help you feel good about yourself and build confidence in your own abilities. This self-esteem boost can transfer to other areas in your life, making it easier to tackle challenges and cope with discouragement.
Here are some hobby ideas to get you thinking:
- Learn how to knit, crochet, or sew
- Learn how to play a new instrument
- Start a photo scrapbook
- Start writing a journal
- Try an outdoor hobby like gardening or bird-watching
- Start a new exercise hobby like biking or hiking
- Take a class at your local gym or community center (e.g. dancing, cooking scrapbooking, etc.)
- Start reading books or listening to podcasts
- Join a local club (e.g. a sports club or a choir)
- Start cultivating an indoor jungle made up of houseplants
- Find a fun puzzle game you enjoy like picross or sudoku
- There are a million other more obscure hobbies to chose from: e.g. candle-making, origami, terrarium-building, bonsai tree growing, miniature figure painting, and just about anything else you can think of!
Know Your Habits and Triggers
When you smoke every day, the habit tends to get woven into many different areas of your life. You might smoke as part of your morning routine, take smoke breaks during the work day, smoke in your car and during your free time, etc.
Because of this, your brain starts to associate all sorts of actions and habits with smoking. Then, when you stop smoking, those same actions and habits are likely to trigger cigarette cravings.
This is one of the things that makes quitting so difficult to do; no matter what you do or where you go, little things can remind you of past smoking habits and give you the urge to repeat them again. The association can become so strong after smoking for months or years that you can't imagine doing certain things without a smoke.
Certain moods and psychological states can also trigger tobacco cravings and the habitual impulse to smoke. For example, many smokers experience extra strong cigarette cravings when they're angry, anxious, or stressed.
There are three main types of smoking triggers to watch out for:
- Emotional triggers: e.g. anxiety, stress, anger, boredom, loneliness, frustrating situations, etc.
- Habitual triggers: e.g. driving, drinking alcohol, after eating, during breaks at work, etc.
- Social triggers: e.g. social events with friends, being around others who smoke, vacations, going out to a bar, etc.
For your quit smoking plan to be successful, you'll need a way to handle and ride out these triggers without giving in to the cravings. There are two main ways to do this: by replacing habitual smoking sessions with an entirely new habit, and by changing your routine to avoid the triggers altogether.
Before you quit, take note of all your smoking habits and all the situations and circumstances you know of that make you want to smoke. Then, think of a simple, easy action you can take whenever you find yourself in one of these triggering situations.
The idea is to replace the habit of smoking with a healthier habit in order to weaken the association you have between the trigger and the desire to smoke. Over time, situations that used to trigger you to smoke should instead trigger the impulse to do the new, healthier action instead.
This is where your list of distracting activities, self-care ideas, and new hobbies can come in handy. In each situation where you used to take the time to smoke, pick out an appropriate activity from one of these these lists that you can do instead.
For example, you could replace the smoke breaks you used to take at work with short breaks to take a walk around the block. Or you could take a few minutes to enjoy watching a short video or enjoy a hot cup of coffee instead.
If you find a good alternative and stick to it long enough, chances are that you'll start to really enjoy the new habit even more than you enjoyed smoking. Instead of simply being a replacement for smoking, it can become a pleasant part of your routine that you look forward to every day.
Changing Your Routine
Sometimes the association between smoking and a certain situation or circumstance is so strong that it's impossible or impractical to try to replace it with something new. In these cases, it's often easier to simply avoid the trigger if you can.
For example, if spending time with other smokers makes you want to smoke, sometimes the easiest solution is just to avoid being around smokers. If a certain activity triggers craving, such as going to the bar with friends, try avoiding that activity and replacing it with a different one that you don't associate with smoking—like going out to a different restaurant or to the movies instead.
Taking yourself out of triggering situations can make it much easier to abstain from smoking, especially in those difficult first weeks and months after you quit. However, that doesn't mean you have to avoid those things forever; after you've had the chance to form some new habits and your cravings have reduced, you might find that you can cope with those triggers much better than you could before.
Stay Focused on the Benefits
If you focus too much on the difficulties of quitting smoking, it might seem like too much effort with too little payoff. However, if you take a closer look at all the good things that can happen when you stop smoking, you'll see that the benefits far outweigh the short-term discomfort of quitting.
That's why it's important to learn about the many different ways that quitting smoking can improve your health. Doing so can help you keep your eye on the prize and remember why you're quitting in the first place.
Any time the going gets tough or you start to feel discouraged, it can help you stay on track to focus on what you have to gain if you persevere. You might even want to keep this list, or another list of quit-smoking benefits, on-hand in case you need a quick reminder of why it's worth it to quit.
Physical Health Benefits
Most people know that quitting smoking is good for your heart and your lungs. However, many smokers don't realize just how huge the health benefits of quitting can be.
When you stop smoking, it not only reduces your risk for lung diseases like cancer and COPD, but also protects you from heart disease, stroke, and other serious health conditions. It allows many parts of your body to heal and improve in a variety of different ways.
Here's a more extensive list of the many health benefits you can get once you quit smoking:
- Reduced cholesterol levels
- Lower blood pressure
- Better blood circulation
- Reduced risk of heart disease
- Reduced risk of stroke
- Reduced risk for COPD
- Reduced risk of lung cancer
- Reduced risk for a variety of other cancers (e.g. cancers of the mouth, esophagus, kidneys, and pancreas)
- Reduced risk of lung infections
- Increased energy levels
- Increased fertility
- Reduced risk of problems during pregnancy
- Reduced risk of blood clots
- Improved ability to control symptoms of lung conditions like asthma and COPD
Mental Health Benefits
Studies show that quitting smoking can improve your mood and mental health in a variety of different ways. Most of these benefits are a direct result of no longer having the drug in your system and no longer experiencing the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.
First of all, it just feels good to no longer be dependent on smoking to get you through the day. Once the nicotine withdrawal wears off, you will also no longer have to deal with the physical and psychological symptoms that smokers must constantly fend off between smokes.
In fact, many studies have found that quitting smoking can impact just about every measure of psychological health in a positive way. This might seem too good to be true, but it's a pattern found over and over, even though the reasons are not completely clear.
This might be surprising, since many smokers mistakenly believe that smoking helps them cope with negative emotions like anxiety and stress. However, the truth is that smoking actually does the opposite, and it only seems to help because it relieves the psychological symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.
Here are some of the mental health benefits you might receive after you stop smoking:
- Improved overall mood
- Reduced anxiety
- Reduced stress
- Reduced depression
- Increased positivity
- Increased psychological quality of life
Long-term Health Benefits
You can gain some of the positive effects of quitting almost immediately after you stop smoking; for example, it only takes 24 hours to significantly improve the health of your heart and circulatory system.
Other benefits, however, come later, within weeks, months, or years after you quit. These long-term benefits won't be apparent at first, but in time they can make a huge difference in your health and quality of life.
In the following lists, we've organized some of the immediate and long-term benefits according to when they tend to appear. This timeline will give you a better ide