Change is hard. I study and teach it for a living, so I know a little more about it than the average bear. That doesn’t make it any easier for me to accept change in my own life, just means I recognize it when it’s happening.
I’ve had lots of change in the past four years. I started a company, lost it and my home to a hundred year hurricane, moved eight times with three pets during the year that followed, gained fifty PTSD pounds, landed in Atlanta, got a job, lost a job, got married, and… oh… lost all that weight.
Let’s talk about that last part. Before 2008, the hardest change I had deliberately, actively undertaken in my life (not just been in the way of) had been when I quit smoking in 2001. I was a two-pack a dayer for twenty-seven years (gulp). With the help of a tremendous program at MD Anderson that matched me with a pre-iPhone handheld computer, I managed to wean myself off the poison in twenty-eight days. It was just me, the computer, and a patch—no shame, no counseling, no fear tactics, no peer pressure, no group hugs—and any success or failure was entirely mine. There was no temptation to cheat because nobody else was playing.
It was pure-D behavior modification. Here’s how it worked: The handheld was programmed with the number of cigarettes I usually smoked, and timed to alert me throughout the day in equal intervals. When the alert went off, I had to smoke. Whatever I was doing, I had to get up and go smoke. I was working at Compaq at the time, and my desk was fully an eight-minute journey to the outside smoking area. For the first three days, the alerts were going off every twenty-five minutes, so I was spending all my time either smoking or traveling between smokes. Every three days, the handheld reset to wean me off by fifteen percent, so the intervals gradually got longer. During the early days, I felt like the kid who was sent to the closet with a pack of unfiltered Camels and told not to open the door until he smoked all of them.
The first big Aha! I had, was that while I was smoking the same amount, I wasn’t smoking MY way, and I didn’t like that. I wasn’t chain smoking in the car or on the phone or after dinner. I was smoking when I didn’t want to smoke, and I wasn’t getting to smoke when I did want to.
Next, I realized how controlled I was. For instance, instead of driving with colleagues to lunch, I took my own car so I could smoke. I was missing out on meaningful human interaction for the sake of… what?
I felt my mindset changing. I got mad. Then I got determined. By my last week, when I was smoking just three a day, I was ready to put them down and walk away.
Then 9/11 happened. It was three days before my quit date. Glued to the television with the rest of the world, I ignored the pleas of my handheld and smoked two full packs of cigarettes. By bedtime, I was convinced that all my hard work was for naught.
But I woke up the next morning, turned up the volume on the handheld, pulled off the patch, and smoked my last cigarette ever on September 13, 2001. I’ve never wanted one again. I’m not one of those people who keeps a pack in the freezer just in case. I changed. I felt it happen. I’m not a dry smoker. I’m just not a smoker anymore, period, and never could be. That’s the best kind of change — a sea change that shifts something organically, permanently.
Look, there was nothing magical about that handheld computer. I was looking for magic, and it pretended to be, but all it really did was trick me into making a promise to myself and keeping it. Smart, smart, smart.
So about those PTSD pounds. I approached them the way I had learned to with my smoking handheld ten years earlier. This time I used an iPhone app called MyFitnessPal. I analyzed my eating habits, learned what I was definitely doing wrong (almost everything) and definitely doing right (not much), I studied what my specific body and body type needed at my age, and I spent nine months practicing, just me and my iPhone. In the process, I have had a mind-shift, a sea change related to food. Dining is still my favorite entertainment (I’m from New Orleans, so what do you expect?), but I do it much, much smarter now.
If you still smoke, I want you to know something: Losing weight and quitting smoking are both about breaking bad habits, and both are accomplished the same way. When you quit smoking, the nicotine is out of your system in three days to three weeks, depending how much you smoke, and that’s the end of the physical addiction. What’s left is the much harder psychological piece, which is why so many people quit, but say they never stop thinking about it for years on end. So if you still smoke, get behavioral help to break the habit of smoking. Engage a nutritionist, a hypnotist, acupuncturist, whatever speaks to you. Do it for yourself, nobody else. Make the commitment to you. You have total control.
I’m really enjoying my new habits now, and instead of a burden, the weight loss has become a bonus. I know for sure that I’ll keep losing until I find my sweet spot, and I’ll keep it off just as sure as I know I’ll never smoke again.
It’s a sea change, I feel it at my core, and it’s a very, very good thing.