For a long time I kept all of them. And not just at New Years, either. Two stone? Lost. Savings target? Met. Dry January? Easy. I took a healthy packed lunch to work every day. I kept my trainers by the bed for 6am runs. I read War and Peace, then I read it again. In short, if I willed some lifestyle change, it happened – but isn’t that how it works for everyone?
Apparently not. Spock-like, I noted how the other humans seemed to sack off their good intentions within a few weeks – even making a big joke of the whole “resolutions” business – and I was confused: like, seriously, when are you lot going to get your acts together?
That was all before I decided to give up smoking. It is hard to pinpoint in which year this happened exactly, because the fear of failure was such that it took me from 2006 until 2011 just to admit to myself that I did indeed want to give up. I was a “social smoker” – 10 cigs on a Friday night, 20 on a Saturday, none during the working week – so there were also long periods when I could easily kid myself that it was not a problem.
Eventually I faced up to it: my smoking addiction, with its enmeshed physical and psychological effects, could not be conquered by willpower. For the first time in my life I began to appreciate the vast ocean of complicating factors that might lie between “Step one: resolve to do something” and “Step two: get it done”. It was time to dive in.
Coming to understand these factors was a slow and humbling process. Like 90% of smokers, I had taken up the habit as a stupid teenager and my thinking had not matured much since ducking out of double maths to share a B&H behind the caretaker’s shed. On some unarticulated level, I believed that courting a cancerous death was life-affirming and that ignoring overwhelming medical evidence was exercising my free will. Imagine my horror to discover that, actually, I had just been meekly lining the pockets of big tobacco all along. There is nothing rebellious about that.
An ex-smoker friend recommended Allen Carr’s bestseller The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. After a few repetitious chapters, I realised it was not so much a self-help book as a self-hypnosis course. Carr’s fundamental insight was something my prideful reliance on willpower had obscured: our lazy brains play tricks on us to avoid any effortful change, but they can be tricked right back. Ellen had been working against Ellen – and now Ellen (with the help of Allen) had to wrestle back control.
There is a whole body of literature dedicated to disseminating such practical, proved methods of habit-forming – which is all any successful self-improvement amounts to. The approach works – I did not light up for several years. But it is not exactly foolproof, either. A lockdown relapse has reminded me that I am still a fool for a cigarette with a glass of white wine in the wrong conditions. I have, however, fully embraced the overarching lesson of giving up smoking: self-discipline without self-knowledge is like a cigarette without a light.