Self tracking and behavior change for smoking cessation

Brief background-
Over the past 17 years I’ve developed a smoking cessation program, Cognitive Quitting, that starts with a redefinition of smoking as an established automatic response to a number of observable, though seldom observed, cues. These cues are typically physical, usually involve changes in muscle tension and breathing, are common to the moment by moment experience of life (not only nicotine withdrawal), and we’re rarely consciously aware of them unless they become intense.

There are many actions/behaviors we engage in that, once learned, become automatic. Driving, brushing teeth, and smoking are but a few of the more obvious and common. By way of example, when we first learn to drive we consciously observe our position within our lane and make intentional steering adjustments (muscle movements) to correct and maintain desired lane position. Once learned, that intake of visual cues and immediate association with muscle movement becomes automatic. Today, we fly down the highway at 60mph with virtually no conscious thought to ‘how to steer’. Two of the primary immediate symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are increased muscle tension and shallow breathing. Once the association between those symptoms/cues and a smoking response is established and becomes automatic, smokers begin responding to muscle tension and shallow breathing with a ‘light up’ response regardless of the source of those cues i.e. anger, boredom, fatigue, hunger, driving, sitting too long at a computer, or nicotine withdrawal between cigarettes.

The tracking-
If I want to change how I ‘steer to stay in my lane’, I’d have to make that dynamic very conscious while I introduce and practice new associations. In the same way, if I want to change a smoking response to subtle changes in muscle tension and breathing, I need to first become aware of those cues and then practice actions that immediately and effectively address them. I’ve observed, both for myself and those I’ve taught, that hourly tracking (6-8 instances/day) results in detailed understanding and awareness. This is a skill that most people can develop and become proficient with usually within 1-3 days.

The data to be collected hourly:
Time- (present time when the timer goes off)
Situation- (one to three words re: what I’m doing in this moment or my state of being i.e. anxious, tired, bored, etc)
Body cues- (start with where are you tense? how are you breathing? add any other observed cues i.e. thirst, eye strain, headache, etc)
Rational responses- (simple actions that immediately and effectively address only the observed cues i.e. stretch neck/shoulders, take some deep breaths, drink water, etc)

I’m sure this could be fairly easily developed as an app for any number of platforms. However, to date it’s been extremely effective as a low tech exercise using nothing more than an hour timer, a sheet of paper, and a pencil/pen.

I’ve observed that a shifted perspective, increased awareness, and practiced actions result in smokers being able to quit quickly and easily.

When I was first made aware of and started reading through the forums, I felt that my program would be an excellent example of a behavior change than can occur when self tracking leads to increased awareness and understanding. I’ve tried to condense a lot of information that requires much more elaboration into a few short paragraphs and I expect I’ve done this poorly. If anyone has any questions, I’d be glad to answer in greater detail.

Hi Steve - thank you for that really interesting description. It’s fascinating to me how often the theme of “increased awareness” features in QS stories. And this one interests me especially because you used only a timer, pen, and paper.