Quit smoking: 6 simple steps

November 2012

by Laura Nathan-Garner

woman breathing easySusan Barry tried to stop smoking several times. But she didn’t kick the habit for good until she made it her New Year's resolution.

Health-wise, it was the best resolution Barry could have made — and kept. According to the American Cancer Society, people who stop smoking before age 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years by 50%. And all smokers reap benefits — including improved circulation and lung function — within weeks of quitting.

Six years after becoming smoke-free, Barry enjoys these perks and others. “I don't stink, I don't cough all the time, and I'm not controlled by cigarettes,” she says.

Ready to kick the tobacco habit for the New Year? Try these tips. Beware, though: No quit-smoking strategy is one-size-fits-all, so you’ll need to adapt these strategies to your smoking personality.

calendar1. Set a date.

Whether you quit on January 1 or another date, it’s smart to plan ahead.

“Picking a quit date, particularly at a time when you know your motivation is high and there will be less stress or distraction, is generally a good idea ,” says Paul M. Cinciripini, Ph.D, director of MD Anderson’s Tobacco Treatment Program and professor in the Department of Behavioral Science.

“Success at quitting smoking may require some change or adjustment to your daily routine and more broadly to your lifestyle,” Cinciripini says. “Think about how you can arrange your life to give you the best possible chance at success, before you make a quit attempt and then follow through.”

2. Get help.

Few people quit for good on their first try. So get all of the support you can. “By using medication and getting help from a behavioral counselor or psychologist, you’ll boost your chances of success,” says Vance Rabius, Ph.D., instructor in MD Anderson’s Department of Behavioral Science and former senior scientist at the American Cancer Society Quitline.

man dialing phone

Don’t have the time or money to get professional help? You can get free counseling by calling one of these free quit lines:

  • Centers for Disease Control Office of Smoking and Health: 1-800-QUIT NOW
  • National Cancer Institute: 1-877-44U-QUIT
  • American Cancer Society: 1-877-YES-QUIT

Or, find out about counseling resources in your area (free and paid) by calling:

  • askMDAnderson: 1-877-632-6789

“A counselor can help you identify what triggers you to smoke and determine what’s most likely to work for you,” Rabius says. That may include using a nicotine replacement product like the patch, gum or nasal spray, and cleaning out your car and home so you’re not constantly reminded of cigarettes.

3. Swap habits.

Before quitting, identify the moods or situations that lead you to smoke. Then, remove those smoking triggers from your environment and replace them with activities or habits that help you avoid tobacco.

Smoke because you like to chew on something? You may be able to get your fix by drinking water or chewing lozenges. Light up when you’re anxious? You’ll need to find new ways to cope with stress.

Susan Barry knew she couldn’t resist a cigarette when she was drinking alcohol. So, she avoided alcohol for three months after she quit smoking. Others have given up coffee or soda to succeed in their non-smoking resolve.

“This is one of the areas where a behavioral counselor can really help,” Rabius says.” He or she can help you figure out how you’re going to deal with situations when you’d normally smoke.”

4. Distract yourself.

woman blowing snow When you first quit smoking, you may spend a lot of time thinking about it. So, it helps to create positive distractions.

Barry did this by inventing a game. “I had to do one thing every day that I had never done before. It could be something small, like drinking hot milk, or big, like taking trapeze lessons,” Barry says. “The time spent researching and doing new things helped take my mind off not smoking.”

5. Take it one day at a time.

“Never again” can seem daunting during your first days without a cigarette. Focus instead on short-term goals. 

“I told myself every day that I could smoke tomorrow if I wanted to, but today I wasn't smoking,” Barry says. “The idea that I just had to last through the day was really helpful.”

6. Reward yourself.

Rewarding yourself for even small successes can reinforce that you’ll benefit from quitting very soon.

“I set milestones for rewards,” Barry says. “After the first week, I bought myself a jar of body cream. After a month, I got a cashmere scarf.”

And with a healthier body, she’s still earning rewards six years later. “I look back and see a different person!” Barry says of her old self.

Related Links

A Word about Quitting Success Rates (American Cancer Society)
Do You Need Help to Quit? (American Cancer Society)
Quit Guide (Smokefree.gov)
Sizing-Up the Competition (MD Anderson)
Smokefree Women (Smokefree.gov)
Where There’s A Will: Free Programs Help Smokers Quit (MD Anderson)