What’s the best way to quit a bad habit?

Today’s question is inspired by an anecdote a reader noticed in the February 2013 “Mexico Mennonite Aid Update”.  The following was related by Steve L. Yoder in a section entitled “A Deadly Weed”:

Very few can kick the habit as an Amish friend of mine did. In bygone years the local drug stores always had cigars and cigarettes in their store windows right by the sidewalk.  He could not pass by there without going in for some cigars.

At some point he decided to quit.  So the next time he came to such a window he stopped, looked in, and spoke to the cigars.  He asked them, who is boss – you or I? I am!!  He never smoked one after that.

Cold turkey quitting stories are often dramatic and highly tellable.  My grandmother was just sharing hers with me.  She was traveling from Poland to visit her daughter and son-in-law in the US (my parents).  This would have been in the mid-80s, and her stay was being financed by my mother and father.

She decided she wasn’t going to burden them with the cost of her cigarettes too, and smoked the last one right before heading off to the airport. I told her I’m glad she did that, since she probably wouldn’t be around right now otherwise.

Dive or tip-toe?

Steve Yoder may be right when he writes “very few” can quit this way.  But some claim cold turkey is the only way to go.  Like tearing off a band-aid in one swoop, or diving into cold water instead of tip-toeing in, the pain is intense but short.  Others preach gradual change, or swear by substituting good habits for bad.

cold-turkeyI’ve never been a smoker, so haven’t had to stop that one.  The things I’ve abandoned are more benign: sweets, too much television or caffeine. For four winters in high school I was on the wrestling team, the only time I really had to stick to a strict diet (painful enough when you’re a calorie-ravenous teen).

Maybe attitudes and mindsets can fit in this as well.  Some pre-coffee mornings I can be a grump, but am definitely more positive now than in my early 20s.

How do you change your habits?  Is it best to go “cold turkey” as the Amishman did, or more gradually?  Where do you find the strength to do so?

Turkey photo: Eddy Van 3000/flickr

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    1. Robert L Gschwind


      I have pretty much just got mad at myself. I have quit smoking (25 Years now), Given up soda and sugary foods (I truely miss my Amish cinimon rolls), and white flour goods. Not easy, but with God’s help I have resisted them all. Dr. says I can treat myself to a Cinimon roll once a month.

      1. Well done Robert. Getting mad, sometimes that is what it takes, I’ve found. Glad to hear you can still dip into the Amish dessert cupboard from time to time. But think how hard it would be if you were Amish living in an Amish home.

        1. Jean Junkin

          Quitting a habit

          My husband smoked for several years. His doctor told him he had to quite because he had asthma. He quit on the day our son was born. Can you imagine having a newborn and a husband who just quit smoking. To this day, he can’t chew Juicy Fruit Gum, because that is what he chewed instead of smoking.

    2. Erik,
      I know many Amish men who smoke those little cigars, pipes or use smokeless tobacco. Because of their lack of exposure to information of health risks, their sons continue to pickup the habit. There are many Indian reservations around New York where tobacco is untaxed and can be had on the cheap. These same men will talk of “English” folks using drugs, but will never admit their addiction to tobacco. My addiction is Amish bake goods! Have a great day.

    3. Roberta

      Please do not say that the Amish smoke “Because of their lack of exposure to information of health risks…” They ignore the warnings, just like everyone else who smokes.

    4. My son would like to quit smoking, but has found that he has a strong physical reaction to the withdrawal. So he either needs to see the doctor and get medical help to quit, or sweat through the cramps and nausea. Since we live together, he decided that he didn’t want to subject me to his mood swings! Good excuse?

      1. I’m not sure if it’s good, but sounds like a convenient enough excuse 🙂 I have heard quitting smoking can be terribly difficult, though. Others it seems can just drop it. Maybe this depends on your physiology. How effective are the nicotine patches and gums, I’ve always wondered?

      2. Coffee withdrawal

        The only withdrawal symptoms I’ve suffered have been when I’ve cut back on coffee too hard…which seems to give me headaches, but manageable ones.

        I remember I was drinking 5+ cups a day while writing Success Made Simple. Probably a little too much. And I’m not so sure it gave my brain the boost I thought it did at the time.

        Coffee gives me pretty serious diminishing returns, I’ve found. The first cup really sharpens the sword. Subsequent cups, not so much. Sometimes a post-lunch cup is good to fight the afternoon drag. A 5-minute power nap probably does just as much if not more, though.

    5. Erin

      I’ve struggled with my weight since high school and have tried every diet out there. Great success the first few weeks, but when they’re so restrictive, I fall off the wagon after a few weeks. After our third child was born in 2009 we took out additional life insurance and I had to have a cholesterol panel done. I was 30 and my cholesterol was close to 300. That was my wake up call! Our entire family joined the gym and my husband and I both lost 35 pounds and I lowered my cholesterol by over 100 points. Unfortunately, harder than losing weight, is keeping it off!

    6. Rewards

      In the 60s, my first-grade brother bit his fingernails down to the bloody quicks. My parents tried everything, even painting his nails with bad-tasting stuff from the drugstore. Nothing worked. Knowing that he played tetherball every day at recess, they offered to buy him a set for at home. He stopped his habit immediately and got the tetherball. Never bit his nails again.

      1. OldKat

        Cool story

        Stephanie; thanks for sharing this.

        1. Aw...

          Thanks, OldKat! By the way, although I’m glad my brother stopped the habit, big sister didn’t think it was fair that he got something good because of a bad habit. 🙂 But the upside was, we were all tetherball champs and I amazed the kids in the afterschool program where I worked.

    7. Naomi Wilson

      The right motivation

      One day, when my son was about two, he said, “I want to smoke a pipe, just like Grandaddy!” My dad, who had been a smoker for over forty years, quit within the month. As far as I know, he hasn’t had a smoke in the last three years. I am so proud of his demonstration of love and willingness to sacrifice for his grandchildren.

      1. OldKat

        Cool story, too.

        Another cool story. The poeople that post on this site have the most interesting stories.

    8. Carol

      "Cold Turkey" quitting

      Hi Erik, Over 30yrs ago my husband was finishing medical school. He was on rounds with the attending Drs in ICU. A patient who had been admitted in respiratory arrest a few days earlier remained on the ventilator. Dr’s were unable to wean her off the machine. My husband read the chart and noted she was an extremely heavy smoker for many years. He spoke with the attendings re: this information(unfortunately the Drs seemed to be unaware of this fact), and suggested the patient be given a cigarette. Amazingly, the Dr’s took my husband’s advice and the patients lungs cleared right up and she was immediately off the ventilator. Turns out she had tried to quit smoking “cold turkey” and it nearly cost her life. Subsequently she was able to quit by doing so slowly under her doctors care. Not saying this would happen to everyone as this was an extreme case. Though I believe all should know and take to heart(every pun intended) to never start smoking or using tobacco in any shape or form ever in the first place! Hope all is well with you and your family. Blessings, Carol

      1. Good example Carol. Some people quit cold turkey only at the risk of their lives. You hear about this with alcoholics as well, with heavy users who quit outright sometimes dying.

    9. Alice Mary

      "Just" a little motivation...!

      My “drug” of choice is just about any carbohydrate, though especially sweets. This is not good for a diabetic! Indeed, it was not until my diagnosis about 6 yrs. ago that I realized carbs also come in other forms—like potatoes, white rice, white pasta, etc. I also have had a weight problem (mainly acquired after my second child—now 30—was born). Suffering from depression just made things worse, all-around. It’s (weight loss/maintenance) a constant battle! But recently, one of my older sisters (the younger of the two), also a diabetic, ended up hospitalized & now is in a nursing home on dialysis (and with congestive heart failure) due to her not following doctor’s orders regarding her diabetes (VERY long story, short). Just seeing her in an almost constant sleepy/brain-foggy state (before dialysis began) has made me much more determined NOT to let that happen to me, especially with my 2nd granddaughter due to be born in mid-June. (With age comes wisdom…FINALLY!)

      I greatly admire all those who have shared their success stories here. YOU are all an inspiration and motivation to me to keep on trying! Thank you, and God Bless!

      Oh, and Erik, I have suffered severe withdrawal from trying to cut out caffeine “cold turkey”. Now I know to cut back gradually (I ended up with a migraine & had to have my husband take me home from work, mid-day, when I went cold-turkey about 20 yrs. ago). It was truly frightening and very painful!

      Alice Mary

    10. DUH!!

      Some days I’m not too swift. Why the picture of the turkey, I wondered. Finally I got it: COLD.TURKEY.

      One of our daughters quit smoking. Several times. She said if you can just get past day three, you have it made, as far as the craving goes. I guess that her thinking that she could have “just this one” after she’d quit for awhile is what got her started again. After 5 or 6 trips on the merry-go-round, she got off and stayed off.

      1. I thought about putting up a freezer turkey, but couldn’t find any great photos. At least this guy has a blue face 🙂

        I think that must be a huge pitfall for people trying to quit something…rewarding oneself for good behavior and thinking it will stop at just one.

    11. Forest

      Mark Twain once said “Quitting smoking is easy; I’ve done it a hundered times” (or something like that…)

      My own personal problem is eating too much, too often, of the wrong kind of foods. Never have smoked or chewed…

      I would suggest prayer for help in putting aside those habits we know are harmful to us. It has helped me and I feel sure it will help others.

      1. I never get tired of a Mark Twain quote Forest. Thanks. A true genius wit.

        Higher power can have a hand in these things.

    12. Sadie

      The worst habit I think I’ve ever had was pretty benign: biting my nails. But the reason I had to stop is fairly amusing, which is why I am sharing.

      One evening, I was nervous about something or another, and biting my nails without really even noticing I was doing that. Suddenly, I felt and heard a strange cracking sound in my mouth; I looked in the mirror and I had, by biting my nails, managed to put a huge chip (in the shape of a semicircle) in one of my lower front teeth. I had no idea my nails were so hard lol!

      I went to the dentist the next day, the chip being large and very noticeable as I talked. The dentist was able to simply grind the chipped area away, making a slightly slanted but decent looking bottom tooth. She ground the tooth next to it to make them look even, and it worked out quite well. However, the next time I tried biting my nails (which was actually during the drive home from the dentist) I realized that because of what she’d done, my top and lower front teeth could no longer directly touch each other, making it impossible for me to bite my nails anymore. For about a week, I kept forgetting; but really, I’m glad now!

      1. Sadie, maybe your dentist knew what she was doing?

    13. OldKat

      Do as I say, not as I do ...

      I look at obesity in our society and I am really concerned; we need to do “something” about it & that “something” doesn’t need to come from the government. However, a year ago at fractionally under 6’4″ and tipping the scales at 300 pounds I didn’t really have any room to talk. My “ah-ha” moment came a little over a year ago when we took pictures for our church directory. When we got ours back my wife and I were both shocked at how heavy we looked (even though the bathroom scale had been telling us as much for years). I looked almost EXACTLY like my late uncle Herman. He was a wonderful man; kind, compassionate and funny as all get out … always laughing and joking, BUT he had that almost perfectly round German face and a body to match. He was my all time favorite uncle, I just really didn’t want to look like him!

      My wife wanted to throw those pictures away, but instead I had her frame them and put them in the living room for motivation. It worked. I lost 50 pounds and have gained about 6 or 7 of it back, she lost about 30 pounds and has gained no more than about 3 pounds back. We continue to leave those pictures in the living room as a reminder (she hides them if anyone comes over other than our children).

      Essentially we did what Robert L Gschwind did; less the smoking part, because neither us have ever smoked. Like Mary Alice, carbohydrates were a major issue for us. We increased the protein and the veggies; cut way back on the white rice, potatoes and wheat products & the weight practically fell off. This summer (when veggies are abundant)we are going to shoot for another large reduction. We KNOW it will work, just a matter of sticking to it.

      1. Great story Oldkat, brought a smile to my face. Sometimes we need to look these things in the face.

    14. Millie

      A great way to quit . . .

      Interesting to read the solutions to problems we all seem to face at one time or another! My late husband was a smoker and had been since his early teens. Both parents were smokers so the example had been set. No one in my family smoked so you can see the “tug of war” between us. He tried over the years to quit many times, but then went back to smoking. When our first grandson was born, my daughter issued orders that he could not smoke around the baby! He took that to heart and quit smoking. I asked him how he could stop this time when all the other times he went back to the habit. His answer, “I just turned it over to the Lord and said, ‘Lord, You know I cannot do this on my own. I need Your help desperately.’ Hence, I have been successful this time; plus, I do not want it to keep me from being with my grandson.” When all is placed on the table with God, the strength comes.

    15. Patty Tolliver

      What's the best way to quit a bad habit?

      I haven’t had to stop a habit such as nicotine but I do have a serious one. Procrastination. This leads to depression for me which inevitably makes my life a tornado. Right now I am having many conversations with God asking him to help me stay away from the procrastination “dragon”. I try to remember the really nice things that will happen if I don’t let procrastination take me over. God is helping me with this. So today I’m feeling pretty good about how I am proceeding. I know it will be a long, bumpy road and I will get side tracked but as long as I keep my sights clear I am confident that I will eventually beat that darned “procrastination” dragon.


    16. Theresa


      I use to suck my thumb till the age of 14 when I got braces. To this day my one thumb is shorter than the other one!! I used to think that is tasted like chocolate. Now when I see if I can bring up that familiar taste it does nothing for me, so there you have it, no thumb sucking for the past 30 years.

    17. Mona, Kentucky Lady 717

      Well PEPSI was my downfall….when I worked, always had one every day for lunch….so after retiring, I just decided to cut back on them….and after hearing Dr. Oz talk about how bad they are for you, I just decided to stop drinking them….haven’t had one since May 2012,11 months now…..don’t even miss them 🙂 it’s amazing what you can do when you set your mind to it…..

    18. Ada/KJV Conservative

      Lukewarm Turkey

      Well, I have (have had) a couple of bad habits…not drug related, though.

      I know ya’ll are going to laugh (or worse), but my downfall is ice cubes. I’ve been crunching on soft ice cubes (like out of a glass of water- slightly melted and thus softened) since I was probably 4 or 5 years old. I’ve tried to stop, as I know that it is not good or my teeth (no accidents YET). Right now, I’m at that lukewarm stage (no pun intended). I’ve heard that some people chew ice because of mineral deficiencies. Personally, I think I have a brain deficiency.

      On December 15, 2012, I decided that I had to give up television. It was destroying my brain: making me a little more combative, etc. This was after my October 2012 salvation. Later, I became convicted of Exodus 20:4 (Thou shalt make no graven image), so I stopped watching videos, too. I’ve ended up “binging,” mainly when I have idle time and idle hands. I know it is not good though (because I am convicted of it).

      With these in mind, I will tell you another “addiction” story. From the time my brother could sit in the yard and play as a baby, until he was about 4 years old, my brother ate dirt and sand. Again, I think this was a mineral deficiency (we were dirt poor when we were in elementary school…maybe that was why. Then again, all he would eat was mashed potatoes. Not healthy!)



      In Christ,