A Framework to Quit Smoking

Raghav Arora

Sep 8, 2020

Smoking is a bad habit that will kill you. Everyone knows this and yet, about 1.3 billion people smoke worldwide. Quitting is difficult and anybody who has tried knows that all it takes to relapse is a split-second of losing resolve. I was once a smoker and have experienced this difficulty first hand.

I tried my first cigarette as a rebellious act in college and it soon became a habit. I befriended more smokers and social smoking became customary. When my parents found out, they started keeping a strict watch on me. My room, car and pockets would be regularly checked for items like cigarettes, lighters, matchsticks, and even chewing gum. They expected it to dissuade me from smoking but on the contrary, I started to look for excuses to get out of the house just so I could light up a cigarette without getting caught. Every chance I had to smoke started to look like an opportunity. I was completely addicted.

Today as I publish this post, it has been 45 months since I quit. Recently, while reading Indistractable by Nir Eyal, I understood how my circumstances helped me in quitting with ease. I was able to quit without any withdrawal symptoms or accessories like nicotine gums or patches. If you are a smoker and want to quit, this post will help you understand how and why you feel the need to smoke and how to control these impulses so you can finally quit.

What makes us smoke?

We often justify addiction by deflecting blame on proximate elements such as nicotine, sugar and opioids because that is the easy thing to do. It is no secret that the nicotine present in tobacco is addictive but I firmly believe that biological dependence on nicotine can be overcome if we successfully address the psychological aspect of addiction.

We have a natural tendency to escape discomfort and therefore anything that relieves us of our discomfort is potentially addictive. Smoking, like other addictions, is a desperate attempt to alleviate pain. For me, this pain came in the form of thoughts of not being as smart as I thought myself to be, and the way to make this thought go away was lighting up a cigarette.

Uncomfortable Truths

Facing reality can be painful and to escape this pain, we try to distract ourselves with addictions like smoking, alcohol, drugs, binge watching tv shows and endless scrolling on social media. On framing smoking as a mere distraction, it becomes clear that the pack of cigarettes in our pocket is a proximate element that actuates our desire to smoke. The root cause of our addictions run deeper.

Before you light up your next cigarette, ask yourself some simple question - “Is there an uncomfortable truth that I’m trying to escape?” If the answer to that is yes to any extent, then smoking is definitely a distraction for you.

If we fail to identify and deal with the root cause of our distractibility, we will continue to find ways to distract ourselves. In fact, many companies harness our distractibility and design products that put an immediate end to our pain. Even a tool as innocent as Google Search is designed to rid us of the discomfort of not knowing something.


Conditioned behavior and social context triggers perhaps play the biggest role in keeping us addicted. Research on nicotine addiction suggests that contextual features can become associated with addiction, and act as triggers that prompt us to smoke.

A few years of smoking conditions our mind to associate smoking with a wide range of daily activities and emotions. Meeting a friend who smokes could make us want to smoke, and so could the smell of tobacco from a stranger’s cigarette. We could also feel the need to smoke during a particularly stressful day at work. Such triggers are ubiquitous . They can be as simple as being stuck in a traffic jam or as complex as drinking our favorite beer on our balcony in the afternoon.

Modeling Behavior

Before I talk about my quitting act, it would be useful to understand some basics about human behavior. For that we turn to BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model, which is a universal model applicable to all kinds of behavior by both individuals and groups, of any age, and in any setting. It can be represented by a simple equation:

Behavior = Motivation x Ability x Prompt, or B = MAP

According to Fogg, behavior is the result of motivation, ability, and a prompt coming together at the same moment, or simply, prompts trigger behavior when motivation and ability cross a certain threshold.

Nir Eyal further shows that internal and external triggers prompt us into action, which manifests as either traction or distraction. Traction is intentional and brings us closer to our goals while distraction is an escape and takes us further away from our goals.

Fortunately, our internal triggers can be mastered and external triggers can be avoided. Our actions can be controlled by making a conscious commitment towards traction and distraction can be prevented by dealing with its root cause.

My Quitting Act

In early 2017, I moved to Germany for an internship at a research institution where I inadvertently fell into a set of favorable circumstances that helped me quit.

Absence of Prompts

Moving abroad entailed giving up my old life and adapting to a new one. I was in a completely new environment and I barely spoke the local language. The only people I knew were my colleagues, none of whom smoked. As a result, all social and contextual cues that I associated with smoking vanished overnight.

Traction and Reduced Motivation

I wanted the internship to turn into a full time research job and therefore I was working very hard, continuously learning new things and applying them at work. I produced excellent work and it gave me a sense of huge accomplishment. I was able to prove to myself that I was smart and capable, and with it the affliction that pushed me to smoke began to ease.

Moreover, I was no longer at home with my parents. I knew if I ever wanted to smoke a cigarette, I can just go and buy a pack. I was not on the lookout for opportunities to smoke anymore.

Reduced Ability

Although I was doing good work, yet at the end of the day I was an intern. I was making enough money to make ends meet but not a penny more. I couldn’t afford to smoke even if I wanted to. This significantly reduced my ability to smoke.

A Ulysses Pact and a New Identity

With time, I was able to convince myself that I do not smoke anymore. I had adopted the identity of a non-smoker. My colleagues and new friends did not know about my history of smoking which made embracing this new identity easy. This new identity became my Ulysses Pact.

A Ulysses Pact is a freely made decision that is intended to bind oneself  in the future. They are pre-commitments that limit your future choices and thereby take away the stress of making a decision in the heat of moments like when an attractive bartender smiles at you and asks if he can get you anything to drink or when your boss asks you to accompany her for a smoke.

Identifying as a non-smoker was the final and perhaps the most important aspect of my quitting act. It allowed me to handle every trigger with ease and without it, I could have easily slipped back into my old habits like many do.

A Framework to Quit

On deciding to quit, we quickly realize that a long and drawn out path lies in front of us. It can be daunting to think about. Here is a simple framework based on Nir Eyal’s Indistractable Model to help you plan your quitting journey.

Step 1: Create a Favorable Environment

We know that your environment plays a major role in keeping you addicted. Creating an environment that reduces your likelihood of smoking will kickstart your journey.

  • Remove External Triggers: The easiest thing you can start with is to remove external triggers from your environment. Observe yourself over a few days and note down the times when you feel the need to smoke. Try to pinpoint the exact stimulus that prompted you to smoke. Once you have identified these triggers, work on removing the external triggers from your life.

  • Limit Ability: The next thing to do would be to limit your access to tobacco, or any other substance that you’re addicted to. If you can temporarily move to a location where cigarettes aren’t available, do so. If you can’t, make accessing tobacco difficult for yourself. You can do this by locking your cigarettes in a box and handing over the key to your spouse or another family member.

Step2: Address Afflictions

While these immediate steps are effective in the short-term, you cannot always be in control of your environment. Keeping addictions out of reach for the entirety of your life is impractical, and therefore, mastering internal motivation is paramount.

For smoking, internal motivation has a biological and a psychological aspect to it. The biological dependence on nicotine that you have built over time will take time to subside, and the best way to combat this dependence is to reduce your tobacco intake over a period of time. The psychological aspect of all your addictions is the deep-rooted pain you need to distract yourself from. It could be a troubled relationship, ghosts from your past, or certain failures you had to face in life. In order to effectively quit your addictions, you need to introspect to pinpoint this affliction and address it.

Step 3: Orchestrate your Actions

Quite often these deep-rooted problems are too complicated to be immediately addressed. While you work your way through them, you also need to take active steps to control your response to various triggers. You are free to respond to inner motivations and external triggers with traction or distraction and, as it turns out, you can orchestrate your choices.

  • Create Traction: With traction in your life, other aspects of it tend to fall in place. It improves your odds of being able to address your afflictions. Traction is not limited to your career, but also applies to your other life goals such as creating meaningful relationships with people, maintaining a clean diet, or buying a house to settle down in. The best way to achieve traction is to plan for it and dedicate time to it. Elon Musk, who is perhaps the most productive person in the world, plans his schedule in 5 minute time slots. He understands that unplanned time will likely be taken over by notifications on his phone and go to waste.

  • Preclude Distraction: A simple way to prevent yourself from giving in to your impulses is to perceive yourself as a person who does not smoke and adopting this identity over time. This identity will be a pre-commitment that helps you cement your intent of not smoking when prompted to. It will act as a barrier between you and your triggers and reduce their potency. Commitments get stronger with time and this identity pact will also help you steer clear of a future relapse.

Wrap Up

While one size may not fit all, I am confident that this framework will help you quit smoking. If you have friends who want to quit smoking, make sure you help them out by telling them about this framework. It will have a great positive impact on their lives.

Further Readings

  • I recommend you to pore over BJ Fogg’s behavior model for a comprehensive understanding of human behavior.

  • The most important takeaway from this week’s post is the realization that smoking is a distraction from healthy life goals and quitting smoking is a distinct case of managing distraction. To learn more about managing distractions, check out Indistractable, wherein Nir talks in detail about traction, distraction, triggers, pre-commitments and teaches you to become Indistractable. It is a very well-researched book and I highly recommend that you read it.


  • I sincerely thank Nir Eyal for taking out the time to review this post and helping me structure it.

  • I also thank Dr. BJ Fogg for granting me a license to use his model for the purpose of this post.