Quit Smoking

Grade A for effort

In a conversation with a patient who was trying to quit smoking we discovered that people often grade themselves only for final success and not for “effort”.  The patient said that he did feel like he is doing better, but he still has cravings for a cigarette, and he would like to be at a place where all the cravings are behind him.  We pointed out that he is not giving himself credit for continuing to not smoke in spite of the cravings, rather, he is “grading” himself on whether or not the cravings continue.  Since a smoker can’t control the cravings, the act of quitting is to not smoke, cravings or no cravings.  Are we giving ourselves credit for what we actually achieve, or are we still getting demerits for things beyond our control?

How do you grade yourself?

This led us to reflect on the impact of education methods on our whole adult life and development.  In school, we are evaluated on what we complete, on the final exam, on the outcome.  The education system is much weaker in taking account of the learning process and the whole struggle to get somewhere compared with whether or not someone gets to the goal.  Because of the emphasis on results over process, students are often encouraged to focus on the subjects that come easy to them, where they can get a good final grade, and are subtly discouraged from doing the hard work of mastering a subject that will take time and much trial and error to learn.

This point is echoed by Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, who studies habitual action and habit-forming.  She emphasizes that changing habits, or starting a new healthy habit is not a matter of “will power”.  Rather, it’s a matter of persistence in practicing the new habit over time until it becomes – well – a habit.  To improve our motivation for change, we need to learn to plan in time for practice of the new behavior, and learn to expect slow-downs and stumbling blocks along the way.

Give yourself a “thumbs up!”

To counter the emphasis on final results, we have to remember to give ourselves a pat on the back for effort, for persistence in the face of difficulty, and for how we face problems that we can neither control nor go around.  There will always be problems in life, and what matters is not getting rid of problems, but how we live in their presence.