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I want to quit, but I have no willpower. What do I do?

Dear Advisor,

I really need to quit smoking, but I don’t think I have the willpower to do it.  I’ve tried a few times, but it just never ‘took.’  Do you know of anything that can help someone like me?


Weak-Willed in Iowa

Dear Weak-Willed,

Think about the last time you wanted a cigarette really badly.  Maybe it was during a stressful time, or after some extended event where you couldn’t smoke.  Remember it?

Now imagine that just before you lit up, a genie appeared, laid a cool million bucks right on the table in front of you, and offered you a deal:  The money’s yours, if you just wait another 10 minutes to smoke that cigarette.

Would you have been able to do it?

Most people – even those who feel they have zero willpower – say yes to that question.  (If you said no, just keep filling in that blank until you come up with a dollar value – or something else – that you would say yes to.)

So you could refrain from smoking for 10 minutes for a million bucks – what’s the point?

The point is, if you can refrain from smoking for some period of time if the reward is big enough, then this really isn’t about willpower.  It’s about motivation.  And that’s good news, because unlike ‘willpower,’ motivation is something you can influence.

There’s another point, too:  I’m betting that no matter what you put in that blank, quitting smoking is actually worth more than that to you, if you can tap into your real reasons for wanting to quit.

Why do you want to quit?

OK, I know that every quit smoking program or advice website from here to Kalamazoo says ‘write down your reasons for wanting to quit.’  And you’ve probably even done that a time or two, right?

So this is probably not a new idea to you.  But most folks write things like, “I don’t want to get cancer” or “I want don’t want to smell bad” or “I want to save money.”

This is all wrong.

Not that those are bad reasons to quit.  Those are fine reasons – if they are really the ones that are making you desperate to quit.

Are they?

Or are your reasons more like, “Oh, man.  I was so embarrassed yesterday.  I got in the elevator right after smoking a cigarette outside, and my boss got in behind me.  I know I reeked of cigarettes.  I just wanted to shrink up into the corner…”

The key to this one is the word ‘embarrassed.’  It’s not just that you don’t want to smell bad – it’s that it’s embarrassing.  You reason here is that you want to quit having to feel embarrassed about your habit.

Here’s the secret: emotions are motivating.

So if you want to come up with reasons that will really keep you moving forward, make sure you include emotion words in your reasons.  And make sure to tap into the reasons that are real for you right now.  For me, some of these things literally kept me awake at night…

My example

When I used to smoke, periodically I would have dreams about my teeth falling out, one by one.  I didn’t particularly want my teeth to fall out, but the emotional undercurrent of that dream was all about guilt.  I felt really guilty about what I was doing to myself with smoking – and ashamed that if (when?) my teeth did fall out, it would be my own stupid fault…

So one of my reasons for quitting was “so I can quit feeling guilty about what I’m doing to myself.”

Another was, “so I can quit feeling ashamed that I haven’t been able to quit.”

Another was, “so I don’t have to worry about my teeth falling out.”

The last one is the one most people would write down, but the first two are really much more powerful, because they contained the emotions that were actively making me miserable – I was desperate to quit because I felt guilty and ashamed about my smoking.  Combining those reasons with the horrifying mental image of my teeth falling out packed a real motivational punch for me.

You need to write your own reasons, of course.

But the key is to make sure your reasons capture the emotions behind what’s going on for you and smoking – if you don’t have a strong emotion-word in your reason, it’s not going to motivate you to quit.

Give voice to the emotions, and create a picture for yourself.

By the way, this isn’t just an exercise in self-flagellation.

The point is that these things are the real cost of continuing to smoke for you, and somewhere down deep, you already have all these pictures and emotions.  They are the reasons you are desperate to quit.

The point of bringing them into the light of day is so that they can provide you with the energy to make them not happen.  Otherwise, they just stay underneath, sapping your energy and will until they actually do happen.  Bring these things up, and let them move you in the direction that you want to go.

What to do next

Go ahead and start a list now – jot down what you can think of.  It’s OK to start with your ‘usual’ list of reasons, if you want, but then dig deeper.  Focus on strong emotion-words related to what’s going on for you.

Over the course of the next few days (or weeks, or months – it’s up to you), make it a point to begin to notice the emotions that really bug you about your smoking.  Are you frustrated?  Scared?  Disgusted?

Keep your reason-list handy so you can add to it, and refine your understanding of what’s really going on for you.  When you get ready to quit again, make sure to carry this list with you, so you can keep your real reasons for wanting to quit right in front of you.


What are your reasons for wanting to quit?  Have you tapped into the underlying emotions?  Leave a comment and share your ideas with others.

{ 12 comments… add one }

  • Bob October 23, 2009, 1:18 PM

    Simple; Pfizer Chantix. I tried everything imaginable to quit. You can’t be verbally persuaded into quiting by someone else and nicotine substitutes “ain’t gonna do it”, at least not for me. Smoking is 80% or more physicologicaly addictive. Find out about Chantix. Trust me it works.

    • Gwyn October 23, 2009, 3:57 PM

      tried chantix. Didn’t work for me. Could only take for a little while. It kept me awake at night and caused crazy dreams. Did it not bother you?

    • Deanna October 26, 2009, 7:33 AM

      Bob – good for you that Chantix worked for you. As you can see from some of the other comments, it’s not that simple for a lot of people. Congrats on being quit, and stay with it!!

  • Sally October 23, 2009, 1:50 PM

    I have tried Chantix this past spring, it helped me to cut down, but I never really quit Here it is 4 months later and I’m back to smoking the same amount as before. I am going to try it again. I want it to work.

  • Angela October 23, 2009, 8:02 PM

    I’ve tried patches, gums, losenges, inhalers and Chantix. Still smoking. Will not give up on quitting.

  • Deanna October 26, 2009, 7:42 AM

    It’s nice to hear that folks are not giving up. If Chantix ‘sort of’ worked for you in the past, I’d say try it again, but this time do something to help eliminate the psychological addiction, too. You can find some resources for this behind the ‘resources’ tab – the American Lung Association has an online program that is still free, for now. And you can also read more about my program, The Complete Quit System if you want something that more comprehensively addresses the psychological aspects in a step-by-step program. You could easily combine Chantix with either of these programs.

    In any case, good luck, and don’t give up. You WILL be able to quit if you keep at it until you figure out what makes things click for you. It takes several tries sometimes.

  • Pam Nalley November 6, 2009, 1:45 PM

    I have smoked for twenty six years. I am on my seventh day without smoking using chantix. It has been difficult. But I do think that the chantix helps. But you still have to have alot of will power. It is no miracle pill. I wish there was one.

  • Mary Smith November 6, 2009, 2:52 PM

    Has anyone tried a hypnotist. I have tried patches, gum, and pills and none of them worked.

  • Shirley November 10, 2009, 11:40 AM

    I quit smoking several years ago. I had always hated cigarettes but like so many i fell into the trap and started smoking. The thing that really got me to quit was my children. I had always told them not to smoke but then i was doing it. One day, I looked at myself in the mirror and had a conversation with myself. Both of me thought I was being stupid and I quit. Every person i know that has successfully quit has said that they had to get to the point of really wanting to quit. So have a talk with yourself, you are the only one that can convince you to quit.

    • Deanna November 11, 2009, 12:22 PM

      Good advice, Shirley. And congratulations on your success. I’m glad you’re hanging around to offer encouragement to other folks.

  • Melanie January 9, 2010, 2:18 PM

    Almost four months under my belt as a non-smoker and boy does it feel good, especially going into the new year. At first it was terribly difficult, I had the overwhelming feeling to sit on my hands or to run(which I don’t do?). Everytime I wanted to smoke I would drink water instead. It was very helpful to read material on what happens to the body after quitting smoking. Focusing my energy on the positive outcome. As time passed it would get easier and easier. I guess the most important thing is to give yourself time and be patient. Unfortunatly that is very difficult in our increasingly fast paced world, but it is possible and it is a choice to be good to yourself. There are so many wonderful things to do besides smoking and the results if given a chance to happen are amazing!! Good luck to all!!

  • Clare January 29, 2014, 5:48 AM

    I have been reading a lot of the above comments which ring a bell with sleeping problems. I am a none smoker for 3 weeks now. I am proud off what I have achieved so far as kicking the habit is a brave step but most of all we are taking control of our demons (cigarettes).
    Keep up the good work and take one day at a time. I’ve been a smoker for 10years and have a young family to think about and not my selfish smoking habit. They hated me smoking, the smell of my breath when one of my kids would give me a hug or kiss, and the smell of my clothes was terrible.
    I didn’t notice how bad it was till I bumped into an old friend the other day who smoked. I honestly had to turn away with the stink of smoke was turning my stomach for her breath.
    Keep up the good work non smokers, for them couple of minutes I thought of a cig I use to take deep breaths and distracted myself to something else.
    I also have sleep problems but Im sure in time it will sort itself out. I feel good and if I put on a few pounds of weight so what, it’s better to put on a healthy few pounds than spending your wasted money on smoking. Think on your goal all the time if a craving starts to kick in then keep that goal and say it to yourself again and again. Think on the money I could save smoking especially while I smoked a pack a day. (A family holiday would be great) lets all fight the addiction and don’t give in its all about will power.
    So keep strong and don’t let the demons control your mind to smoke… Let us control the demons and break the addiction and live a healthier lifestyle with a pound more in our pocket.

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