Gary Gilberg
5 min readMar 27, 2021


The Good Life #12

Why can’t you quit smoking when you know it’s bad for you?

Image by Omar Alnahi from Pexels

12 steps to make hard change easier.

“Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

My success as a life coach depends on my ability to help clients break through barriers to make positive changes in their lives. After a few minutes of coaching it often becomes clear to me, 90% of my clients already know what they need to do. (E.g.-to be healthier, we need to eat more nutritious food, get 8 hours of sleep and exercise more.) So why don’t we do it? Let me share with you what I’ve learned.

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” Charles C. Noble

Change runs the gamut from effortless to difficult, and what one person finds easy can be nearly impossible for another. Easy change is like downloading an app. Once we install it, we follow the prompts, practice a little bit and voila! Done. Hard change takes more than bits of information and a few prompts. Hard change requires a whole new operating system. Why? It’s because our habits are hard wired into the circuits of our brain. The grooves we’ve worn into our neural circuitry are like deep ruts in the snow on the cross-country ski track. We naturally fall into line. To break out of our ruts requires desire, (motivation), strategy (cognitive reframing) and technique, (habit building skills). You need all three to get the job done.

“It takes courage, humility and discipline to change your behavior.” Marshall Goldsmith (#1 success coach in the world for 8 yrs.)

When we face hard change, we tell ourselves we’ll do it sometime in the future — i.e. our future self. In MRI imaging of the brain, when test subjects think about their future self, it’s not in the same location as their present self. It’s in the same location of the brain as a stranger. It’s as if we expect someone else to make the hard change for us. So how do we break the cycle?

Here are 12 strategies to make hard change easier.

1) To begin you need to build up your motivation and self-control. Strengthen your willpower with a small daily task that requires self-control. It can be pushups, 10 minutes of meditation, writing in your daily journal or skipping the donut with your morning coffee. Willpower is like a muscle that gets stronger with use. Students who practiced squeezing a hand grip for two weeks increased their willpower and had better grades 7 months later than a control group who didn’t.

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” Jim Rohn.

2) Ask yourself, “What is my old habit doing for me? Do I actually enjoy it? Is it worth it?” Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking, which has been clinically proven more effective than nicotine replacement treatment, uses the strategy of identifying irrational beliefs and challenging them. In cognitive behavioral therapy it’s called cognitive reframing. Here’s an example from Carr’s book.

“Some say cigarettes relieve boredom…There is nothing interesting about a cigarette… It’s oral satisfaction…Then why do you light it?…It’s the feeling of smoke going into my lungs…An awful feeling…It’s called suffocation.”

3) Ask yourself, “How would your life be different if you did make this change?” This connects your present self with your future self and makes short term gratification less attractive than long term goals. For example, a future without cigarettes would mean you’d save about $30,000 over 10 years if you smoke a pack a day in California.

“No man need stay the way he is.” Harry Emerson Fosdick

4) Pivot your self-identity to embrace your future self. If you want improve your health ask yourself, “What would a healthy person do in this circumstance?” Take small steps to reinforce the new you. Your identity will change as you prove it to yourself with evidence based on your new behaviors. Even though I’ve published a novel, I still felt like an imposter when I introduced myself as a writer. Now I write 5 days a week and I’ve become a writer.

“Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity, you will fail to put them into action.” James Clear

5) Have a clear goal. Make sure your goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time specific. (SMART) If you have too many competing goals, you don’t know where to focus your effort.

6) What are the consequences of not trying? Will you regret your inaction? Will you make yourself more miserable if you don’t? If you don’t quit smoking cigarettes will you damage your health and shorten your life?

7) Take personal responsibility for the consequences of your inaction. If you keep smoking and develop lung cancer, who will you blame?

8) Design the steps to achieve that goal. If you don’t know how you’re going to get there, you won’t even start.

9) Develop your confidence. To achieve your goal, you need to believe in yourself. The best way to do that is to get some small easy wins under your belt and have a team of friends or family who will support you.

10) If you don’t believe in yourself, get professional help. Talk to your doctor about a nicotine patch, join a quit smoking program or hire a counselor with expertise on how to quit smoking. For this example on smoking, here’s a link to the CDC quit smoking website.

11) Learn to say no. In order to achieve a challenging goal, you need to eliminate distractions, tasks and people that compete with your focus and attention. If your #1 goal is to stop smoking, you need to say no to going out with your drinking buddies on Friday night and smoking with them.

“We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.” Robert Brault

12) Design your environment so it’s easy to accomplish what you want. It’s called choice architecture, designing your environment so the choices you desire are the path of least resistance. The steps involved are simple. 1) Find a trigger to cue you to start your new habit. (E.G. When I finish eating, I will help my spouse do the dishes instead of lighting a cigarette.) It’s much easier to replace a bad habit than to eliminate it. 2) Make the behavior you want easy to initiate. (Tell your spouse you are going to stop smoking (emotional support) and you will do dishes instead of lighting up after dinner. 3) Remove barriers and distractions. (remove ashtrays, matches and all cigarettes from your house.) 4) Reward yourself when you follow through. (Go for a walk with your wife after you’ve finished doing the dishes.) 5) If you slip up, make the cost of your smoking public and painful. Make a $100 contribution to a politician you hate every time you light up. 6) Find an accountability partner to help you stay on track.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Will Durant

Stay curious. Be humble. Laugh often.

Gary Gilberg is an executive/life/retirement coach who helps clients make the hard changes in their lives. If you want to learn the 4 most common retirement planning mistakes, click on this link.



Gary Gilberg

Gary Gilberg is a certified coach, writer and ski bum, not necessarily in that order. Sign up for his free newsletters at