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Gary Winters

Leadership Coach

What quitting smoking can teach about managing change

bigstock-Quit-Smoking-No-Smoking-27961071-630x471As of today, it has been 300 days since I’ve smoked a cigarette.

I have smoked during three different periods in my life, the first of which began when I was 16 and lasted about thirteen years. Back then, I started smoking hoping it would help me “fit in” with my friends – almost all of whom smoked.

Ironically, I stopped smoking at about age 29-30 for the same reason – to “fit in” with my friends. By then, almost none of them smoked.

I stayed smoke-free for several years, but one day, I decided to have “just one.” Sure enough, I fell off the wagon and smoked a pack a day for the next 10 years or so. I learned I’m an addict  – whether I’m smoking or not. An addict can’t have “just one.”

Several years passed, and in the midst of a rough patch, I did it yet again. Picked one up in anger and that was all it took – soon, it was a pack a day for six more years.

Add that up and you get about 29 years smoking – mostly in secret and rarely enjoyable. My story is not unique; it’s common amongst smokers.

So 300 days ago I quit smoking again.

This time, I believe and certainly hope it’s forever.

Years ago, I learned a model that described the “personal dynamics of change” from Ken Blanchard. (I do not know who created the model.) According to the model…

Change begins with a feeling of awkwardness, ill-at-ease.

That’s a nice way of putting it. Quitting smoking actually begins with feelings of panic,  terror and grief, as soon as you cut off the nicotine that’s been entering your blood stream for years. (In my case, I quit “cold turkey,” meaning I did not use any gum, patches, or pills. I just stopped.)

Next, you start to ask yourself, “What do I have to give up?”

Obviously, cigarettes are the answer. But when I quit, I found myself realizing I was giving up even more. Quitting meant losing something I considered (oddly enough) a friend. Cigarettes were always there when I “needed” them. They were the “pick-me-ups” that throughout the day. They were a way I had to calm myself down, settle my nerves, and even reduce my hunger.

I also had to give up deeply entrenched associations – smoking and typing, smoking after a meal, smoking upon waking up, smoking just before bed, and so on. I was giving up a LOT.

The next four “dynamics” are in no particular order, and are not necessarily experienced by everyone.

You might start feeling overwhelmed.

Yep, that was powerful. When you quit smoking, you can expect, for the first few weeks or months, a sense that you’re going through the most challenging, difficult thing you can do, and that everything else is just going to have to wait. You think about it all day long. Quitting smoking becomes more important than anything else you’re doing, and often it feels like tobacco is more powerful than you.

You might start thinking that you lack the resources to make the change.

I felt this one a thousand times – maybe ten thousand times. When the urge to smoke would come on in those early days, I had to remind myself over and over that I could do it, that I had the strength, that I could remember the reasons I wanted to quit, and so on.

You could feel all alone.

This one was particularly difficult for me. When I quit smoking I had been a “closet” smoker – hoping that no one knew of my addiction. Because I hadn’t let anyone know, I couldn’t tell anyone I was quitting, either. I didn’t just feel I was all alone, I was all alone.

In a group, people will be at different levels of readiness to make the change.

While I wasn’t part of a group of smoking quitters, I did join a website create to support us. It was true – of the many people who posted there, some were clearly ready to make the change, some were clearly resisting it as long as they could, and most were somewhere in the middle. I was happy to learn that I had much better odds of being successful than some, simply because I was completely ready (and even eager) to make the change.

After a while, if the change isn’t supported, you will revert back to old behaviors.

It happened to me, twice. I have had long, successful quits before, lasting years at a time, and I still reverted to smoking. What I’ve learned as a result of this quit is that I must remain vigilant for the rest of my life, that I cannot take my success for granted, and that if I’m ever tempted to smoke “just one,” I should pause, visit my support website once again, and remind myself of why I want to remain smoke-free and what I need to do to make that happen.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll discuss how I handled the seven dynamics of change as they occurred in my journey to quit smoking, and what I believe this means for managers leading change in their organizations.


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