Quitting Smoking by Cutting Down: 3 Basic Tools for a Gentler Process

A ton of research shows that the most effective way to quit smoking is to just go cold turkey. But stopping all at once can be particularly hard for people with chronic illness, because the physical and psychological impacts are a huge body slam.

If you have a chronic illness with pain and fatigue, like an autoimmune disease that already makes you feel like you have the flu, the flu-like feeling of smoking withdrawals can feel like too much. If you are struggling through depression or anxiety treatment, the intense spike in psychological symptoms can make it seem like quitting is harmful instead of helpful.

And, even though the physical nicotine withdrawal symptoms only last about 3 days (hence the standard advice to just quit all at once and get past those), the brain changes with addiction. It takes 2-4 weeks for most smokers to start to feel better, and a month can seem like an intolerable eternity to folks who are already taxed by underlying conditions.

Personally, the last time I quit successfully 11 years ago, I noticed it got better in waves: much better after a week, much better after a month, much better after a season, and much better after a year. But, for me, the first month is a doozy. And now that my diseases have progressed, the first week cold turkey is simply too much to allow me to stay with it. After failing 8 times in 3 months to quit all at once (cold turkey, with various types of nicotine replacement, by reading Alan Carr, and with my doctor’s and therapists’s support), I started to feel hopeless.

I also started to fear that I was teaching myself to STAY a smoker by developing a smoking crisis cycle: getting very motivated to quit, experiencing intolerable withdrawal effects, getting scared of the quitting experience, and going back to smoking.

And yet, I have ischemic changes to the white matter in my brain, so I cannot keep smoking either.

I decided to try cutting back, in spite of all of the articles I’ve read saying that cutting back doesn’t work because each cigarette becomes “too precious.” As logical as it sounds to quit cold turkey, I had to accept that it wouldn’t work best for my body, and start to get creative about what could work.

Which tools?

I found 3 tools that have worked well for me, to cut down quickly from about a pack a day to 5 a day. And my confidence is going up instead of down, so I can see that I’ll go from 5 to 1 to 0 in no time.

(1) The basic timer!

Since most of us carry our phones 24/7, we have a timer on us at all times.

When you have a smoke, set your timer for a manageable break between cigarettes.

Don’t start with a longer period of time than you can be successful with, even if it’s just 5 minutes!

For me, it was starting with 1 hour at a time.

As I learned to become very comfortable with letting an hour elapse, I gradually increased my timer to 90 minutes, 2 hours, 4 hours, etc.

If the timer goes off and I’m not craving a smoke yet, I don’t have one. But then later when I do, I just set the timer again.

Do I have cravings during my “off smoking” times? Sure. But they are so much more manageable when I can just peek at my timer and say, “Ok, about 3 more hours. What can I redirect my attention to for this short period?”

Thinking about redirecting my attention for the rest of my life is overwhelming, especially if I’m already feeling overwhelmed by symptoms of my disease, but redirecting my attention towards something healing for a short time is not only doable, I begin to teach myself new habits of pleasant or healing things to do instead of smoking.

Hands down, the timer element has been the most helpful part of this process, but here are two more key tools.

(2) LIVESTRONG MyQuit Coach

There are a lot of apps for quitting, but this is the one for cutting back.

It’s free, so it’s easy to check out the features for yourself, but one of the best things this app does is allows you to enter a time period for how long you want to take to quit, and then gives you a weekly schedule for how many you’ll have each day in the process.

For me, the timer function is really the main way I get the number down, but also logging the times I do smoke keeps me conscious of what I’m doing and allows me to see, over time, how well I’m doing in my progress.

It has other functions, like “community,” which may be helpful to some, but I like this app mostly because it’s simple, quick, and stays out of my way, so that I can really focus my attention AWAY from smoking and away from the quitting process, and TOWARDS the new habits I’m developing to replace cigarettes.

(3) The Shift Necklace

If you take one look at a $115 breath control necklace and think, “Well, that’s ridiculous,” I wouldn’t blame you.

The Shift Necklace, advertised for anxiety, seemed pretty obnoxious to me when I first saw it floating around social media about a year ago.

But I couldn’t help but notice that the size and shape seemed much like a cigarette, and I knew I was looking for a physical tool to help replace my hand-to-mouth habit, as well as the more relaxing deep breathing I tend to do while smoking, but I didn’t want to use a replacement like vaping, candy, etc., etc., that might just compound my situation.

So, I decided to just give it a try, and holy moly.

Basically ALL this little guy makes you do is breathe out more slowly. You take a normal inhale and then breathe out through the tube, which gives resistance. It slows your exhale, and that doesn’t sound like much, but after 3 breaths in a row, the muscles of my entire body completely relax. If I do it for several minutes, it feels like I’m going to fall asleep.

Their website has a lot of info about how and why they claim it works, but for me, it just does. I use it randomly while watching TV or whatever, just to keep my baseline relaxation in a good place, or when cravings hit to at least take the panic out of the situation and get back into my head.

The Shift might not be the exact tool for you, but I think it’s key to add in some kind of physical replacement that feels like it helps with whatever your biggest annoyance is in not having the physical object of the cigarette.

That’s not all the tools

Certainly there are a million other tools and tricks you could put together to make a plan that is responsive to your own style, but keeping it simple is working for me.

I’ll add that these few other things certainly don’t hurt:

  • Make smoking boring. Don’t smoke while holding your phone or doing anything stimulating. The point of cutting back is to let your brain heal gradually, and a huge part of that healing is bringing the balance of brain chemistry back to nonsmoking.
  • Make smoking uncomfortable. Don’t sit in a comfy chair and get all relaxed, enjoying your cigarette after having waited for your timer to go off. Service the addiction at the stage in the process you’re in, but remember the point is to move towards building in ways to enjoy the time when your timer is on, rather than enjoying the times when you’re smoking.
  • If you like it, take a lot of CBD. I personally like Rosebud brand, especially now that they’ve started to make an amazing chocolate. For me, starting the day at a nice, relaxed baseline gives me a real leg up.
  • If you’re satisfied after a few puffs, just put it down. The addiction is sometimes just so much about having that “permission” to light up. But the less you actually take in, the better for your health, and potentially the quicker you heal your mind into realizing you don’t actually need to be smoking at all.
  • If you can exercise, get all the exercise possible. Right now I’m in a very difficult flare, so my idea of vigorous exercise is taking a few steps and doing a few stretches, but the moment I can do more, I do. Exercise helps more than anything else to heal the brain, it certainly makes you feel better, and it’s a healthy habit to put into your “off times” when not smoking, to start moving towards a lifestyle of healing.

Month 1: Lost 2 Pounds Overall

Well… my doctor gave me a goal of losing 5 pounds, and I only lost 2.

Yes, I’m disappointed. I was totally sure that 5 pounds would be no big deal with the level of commitment I had (and still have) in my mind.

Uses for PLAIN yogurt

Lifestyle changes so far…

1. I’ve figured out how to develop a taste for plain oatmeal and Chobani™️ without 50 tons of added sugar, and it wasn’t an easy process. 6 points for Strawberry yogurt vs. 0 points for plain yogurt was enough of a motivator, since I’m starving.

2. I even resorted to eating grilled chicken for a few days, even though I hate the texture and flavor of it, but the skinny internet and Weight Watchers seem to act like chicken is crucial.

3. One of the toughest lifestyle changes I made this month is not getting snacks at night.

Baby it’s cold inside

I live in a high-rise that has an awesome gourmet grocery store on the first floor, so I can sneak down in my sweats and slippers and grab the most fabulous array of little chocolate-covered pretzels, basically everything someone would need to make a world-class charcuterie board, organic bake-at-home cinnamon rolls, artisanal cream sodas, every fancy ice cream ever made….

… I mean, you get the idea…

And before I started this journey, I didn’t “keep” unhealthy snacks in the home, but I would definitely pop down to get them every day.

And to top that off, the store has a coffee shop that makes my achilles heel of breakfasts:

add capers, add a little onion, add heirloom tomato


I used to get an order 4 or 5 times a week, because, again, all there is between me and a bakery fresh, loxy, creamy dream concoction is one bank of elevators and $12.

So, that’s over.

But, to be clear, I’m not trying to get into a headspace where I’m “depriving” myself (and maybe that’s one of the ways I’m going wrong i’m not meeting such a modest goal!), so if I had wanted one, I would have just one, but I didn’t.

Oh hi, 🦄 ice cubes

5. I think it was worth investing in a cute pitcher and even cuter unicorn ice cubes, because now I can make a big, cold pitcher of herbal iced tea every morning, and it motivates me to get hydrated, plus helps me track my daily intake.

The easiest method for me is chilling an almost-filled pitcher of filtered water in the fridge overnight, and then in the morning I put 3 tea bags in a mug and add about 6 ounces of boiling water to brew them into a tea concentrate.

Once that cools, I add it to the chilled water, and drop in my ice cubes.

Note: anyone who has ever used reusable ice cubes knows they really don’t chill extremely well. They only last about an hour, but for me, that’s fine: I want to hold the cold while I have the pitcher out for a few hours, such as when I’m working out, but otherwise I keep it in the fridge.


And honestly, the main reason I wanted the cubes is because the unicorn shapes make me interested enough to actually get that H2O in. So, you do you, boo. Unicorns might not be the ticket, but don’t be afraid to do whatever it takes to make hydrating more appealing.

6. Just 2 weeks ago, I started getting Purple Carrot boxes. It’s a meal kit like Blue Apron, or whatever, but vegan.

I’m not precisely vegan, but I love plants and don’t like meats, so it works for me.

The meals are sometimes major hits and sometimes major misses, but they’re definitely healthy in the sense of being whole foods that are nutrient dense.

The major downside is that they’re not organic. Which is almost a deal-breaker. But not for the moment while the convenience is worth it.

7. Exercise is definitely the #1 change I’ve made this month.

Side note: can we talk about how good “Kath & Kim” is? If you’re not watching this kooky Aussie comedy on Netflix, you should be.

I started with the OG, Richard Simmons, whose “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” programs are adorable and great for a gentle-on-the-joints cardio that definitely gets the job done.

For whatever reason, my bod feels way tighter and my paints fit better as if I’ve lost 10 pounds, but I’ve only lost 2.

I don’t think it’s true that “muscle weighs more than fat,” etc. but I do think strength training can shift the shape of the body in a way that makes it feel tighter and firmer, even if I weigh the same.

My oatmeal friend


That’s right, I used to eat not ONE but TWO breakfasts.

See related post on emotional eating & hunger, but the gist is, I was waking up with this incredible sense of hunger, and NEEDED to put oatmeal on the second I woke up, while I was making my coffee.

So, I’d have a sugary oatmeal packet around 6am, and then a second breakfast, often a bagel, or something really not great from a caloric and inflammatory standpoint, around 10am. From there, I’d have a full lunch at 1pm and a full dinner around 6pm, plus an evening snack-fest.

I finally started talking with my therapist about my hunger and the complexity of my emotional relationship with food, and I’ll be honest: it’s been challenging work.

But, somehow it’s working. I’m not waking with painful hunger, and that means I’m only eating one breakfast.

It’s hard for me to work out on an empty stomach, so I’ll either make my oatmeal and have 2 bites, and then have the rest after my workout, or I’ll have a few almonds or something before I get into my spandex.

I’ve been making the transition away from sugar-sweetened oatmeal by throwing a bunch of frozen blueberries in, and it works well enough. If you’re adult enough to keep fresh blueberries in the fridge at all times, that’s much better tasting, and way better looking.

weirdo purple oatmeal

9. I don’t need dessert after everything. I used to struggle to feel “finished” with a meal without something sweet, and usually that meant a full-blown dessert after lunch and dinner every day.

At first I just transitioned to having some fruit or even a cough drop, but gradually my craving for dessert has just gone away.

These are BIG CHANGES…

…so I honestly thought I would have dropped 20 pounds (or something) with so many major adjustments.

But the reality is that all of these changes have been gradual over the past month.

I’m LEARNING each of these changes by practicing them, and that makes perfect sense. Especially since I’ve been sedentary and eating mainly pierogis for a decade.

But now that I’ve learned these changes, it’s time to level up.

Leveling Up

My goal is to be at 125 lbs by September 1, 2021 (which is 9 months from now), and that means I only need to drop about 4 pounds a month, but I really do need to hit that monthly goal, and not miss it so hard like this month.

The changes I’ve made so far haven’t been easy, but here’s what I need to shift this coming month to increase my chances:

1. Keep up the things I’ve learned.

2. Actually track in the Weight Watchers app. This is something I’m terrible at, but the excuses have to stop. It doesn’t take that long, and it teaches me a lot about how much I’m really eating.

3. Actually go to WW meetings. I’m paying for weekly meetings, and they’re virtual so it couldn’t be easier. In the past when I’ve dropped weight and kept it off, going to meetings made all the difference.

4. Try new exercises, especially abs/core. My changing body shape is a huge motivator to stay on track.

5. Smaller portions. I’m definitely eating too much. Purple Carrot kits make “2 servings” and so I have one for lunch and one for dinner. But the servings are huge. I’m going to try dividing them into 3 servings.

I make a cup of oatmeal in the morning, but I’m usually satisfied after 1/2 a cup, so why not?

You might be thinking: if you were measuring your food, you’d know exactly what a portion size should be, but I’m not really there yet, and I have to make the changes I can, since there are so many to make!

6. Get a little more active overall. I need to move more during the day. I like to read, and I’m thinking about switching to audiobooks so I can “read” while I’m moving around. I’m trying to get up the motivation to dig out my Apple Watch and start tracking my steps like everyone else who cares about their fitness seems to do at all times.

7. Stretch and move during recovery days. Since I’m so deconditioned, 20 squats gives me a whole DOMS situation, and I know I need to recover with a certain degree of care. However, I can keep up my daily routine by just switching to yoga.

There isn’t much I find more boring than yoga at this point, but I know the benefits, and it’s way past time to develop a taste for it.

Aaand, off we go. Time to learn more about how to have a body.

My advice to spoonies or sickies like me is to STAY PATIENT AND KNOW THAT LEARNING TAKES TIME. It takes a lot to make changes when you’ve felt like your body is your enemy for a long time, and developed habits for just getting through the day or coping with the emotionally hard stuff of having a disability. And, realistically, the same goes for everyone. 🖤