The Happiness Project, a blog I follow, recently posted a letter from a gentleman who described his strategy to break the habit of smoking. Citing a number of habit breaking strategies in the post, the specific strategy described in the letter was categorized as “the nuclear strategy.”

I am curious what you think about this habit-breaking approach. Do you think this would be a good way to break a particularly difficult habit?

And to my fellow choice theorists, how does this strategy complement or contradict the principles of choice theory?

Here’s the letter –

I picked up smoking when I studied abroad in Vietnam. The father of my host family didn’t speak English, but he smoked, so he encouraged me to join him. Open to new experiences, I went from zero to a pack a day in one week.

That pack-a-day habit stuck with me for three years while I tried everything to quit smoking — set deadlines, cursed my lack of willpower, thought that switching to a tobacco pipe was somehow better. It was terrible.

Of the hundred ways I tried to quit, here’s what worked: I set a date in advance that held meaning for me (the one year anniversary of graduating college), I wrote out a long list of both the things I hated about smoking, and the things I loved about smoking (so I knew the tradeoffs), and then — what I consider the innovative part — I hand-wrote fifteen letters to friends and family members saying “If, after May 20, 2001, I ever smoke another cigarette, I will pay you $200.” I sent these letter particularly to friends who themselves were smokers.

When the date came, I gave away my remaining cigarettes, lighters and accessories. I scheduled new after-work activities to break up my routines for a couple of weeks. And I noticed a funny thing: my smoking friends, who had previously tried to lure me back to smoking in my earlier quitting attempts, were now constantly handing me cigarettes — then reminding me of the money I was going to pay them if I accepted the cigarette. “This cigarette will cost you $200,” my friends would say. The letters had turned my enablers into enforcers. Needless to say, when that one cigarette would cost me $3000, it was easier to refuse it.

And that was it. I still love smoking, and really wish I could smoke. But I went from a pack a day to zero, cold turkey on May 20, 2001 and haven’t smoked again.

The blog went on to explain that a nuclear option is when there’s some major drawback to breaking a habit. For some people, it pointed out, this really helps.

So what do you think? Is the nuclear option simply a gimmick? And if so, are gimmicks ever ok within the choice theory framework?




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