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Token Economy Method – A Unique Way to Quit Smoking That Works


This is a guest post from an ex-smoker in New Zealand. He introduces a unique and effective way to quit smoking by sharing his story; keep on reading to find out more…

My name is Vince McLeod and I am a research psychologist from New Zealand. I have developed this strategy of quitting smoking called the token economy method, which is an adaptation of a method we used in a clinic I once worked in. It was an effective method for creating behavioral change amongst the patients, and I believe that it will work for smoking.

T – 0:10 hours. I wake up with ten minutes to go before I start the program. Decide to have a cigarette first thing. As I’m smoking it I realize that it’s a mistake, but what’s done is done. Consider putting the program off until tomorrow, but I think that’s just the mind lying to me. I am aware that the mind invents all manner of justifications for continuing to smoke; this is the nature of addiction.

T = 0 hours. So it begins. My cigarette butt is still smoking in the ashtray. I am now a non-smoker, I tell myself, but I don’t have much confidence in my resolve. I have failed so many times before, why should this time be different? I decide that such thinking is characteristic of addiction, and therefore I ignore it. I make the decision to consciously ignore any thought process that justifies continuing to smoke.

T + 0:45 hours. My resolve almost fails. What keeps me going is curiosity at how I will feel when I cross off the first box. I can’t be so lame as to not make it through the first hour, considering that I had a cigarette less than an hour ago.

T + 1 hour. The first little taste of success. I cross off the box marked “1” on my sheet. First I draw an X through it and then color the box in. Then I take a step back and remember the time I scored a 98 on a statistics exam. I let the feeling of victory flow through me, trying to make the association between that feeling and coloring in the little box.

T + 1:05 hours. I give up in the effort, but only for a few seconds. Not long enough to actually have a cigarette. What weakened my resolve was the fact that I am meeting a friend for lunch today and I didn’t want to appear irritable and distant.

What frightens me was that I did mentally submit to the desire to have a cigarette, and am not sure how I managed to recover. I look at my sheet again, with the one box colored in. The “8” seems very far away, although if I make it to “2” I will have doubled my score, so to speak.

T + 2 hours. I fill in the second box. This past hour was extremely difficult. Many times I wondered to myself if continuing to smoke would really be all that bad. Fighting your own mind’s justifications for smoking is like fighting a hydra. Defeat one pattern of delusion and two more approach from unexpected directions. The trick is to recognize these attacks as patterns of thought that do not belong to the person you want to be.

T + 2:15 hours. I decide to go for a walk to remove myself from the environment where I am likely to smoke. Walking beside the river that runs past my house, I consciously focus on my breathing and my lungs. I try to feel the cool air enter my body and invigorate me. This somehow feels ridiculous but I keep walking as I know that I can’t smoke while I’m not near my cigarettes.

T + 3:30 hours. The walk took an hour, so I fill in the third box as soon as I get home. Going for a long walk is an effective strategy for beating the cravings. For one, it’s something to do, which beats the boredom. Secondly it gives you a sense of what it means to be healthy and active.

T + 4 hours. I can’t fill in the fourth box because I’m waiting in the city to meet a friend for lunch. What I do instead is imagine filling in the box and giving myself a pat on the back. To associate the act of filling in the box (and therefore non-smoking) with something positive I remember when I passed my driving test.

T + 6 hours. Home again. I fill in three boxes at once, taking my time on each one and trying to fill myself with a sense of achievement and control. To my surprise I feel nothing but depression. I think negative feelings usually come from having your impulses thwarted, and I have an immensely strong impulse to have a cigarette.

I think about how I told my friend over lunch that I was using my education in psychology to give up smoking and he wished me the best of luck. If I have a cigarette now, I know that I will smoke for another two weeks and will have to admit to him that my technique failed. Thinking about this seems to strengthen my will.

T + 8 hours. My first major success. I get to fill in the first of the red boxes, which means I get to claim my first reward, as per the token economy schedule. I rush back to the city, mentally begging myself up. My reward schedule is science fiction books, so I go into a second-hand bookstore and browse for a bit, letting the sense of reward linger. I buy two books, and ask for one of them to be gift wrapped (this will be the reward if I get to 16 hours).

T + 9 hours. The next red box seems very far away. I put the second book, the gift-wrapped one, in my cupboard where I can’t see it. The first book is a copy of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I decide to start reading it now as a distraction from the urge. I soon become engrossed, which is helpful.

T + 9:30 hours. My mind starts wandering, as I have been sitting down now for half an hour. Unbidden, thoughts of smoking enter my mind, and I almost convince myself that putting the attempt off until tomorrow might be a better idea. But then I look at my sheet, and realize that it’s only half an hour until the next box gets to be filled in.

T + 10 hours. Concentration on the book is now impossible. This both frustrates and depresses me, as Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite authors. I receive a boost of enthusiasm when I realize that this difficulty concentrating is a result of tobacco addiction, and that giving it up will not only free my body from early breakdown but, more importantly, will free my mind. On that thought I cross off the tenth box. I step back and look at what I have done. Looking at the boxes makes me feel like a winner, although the feeling is muted by the desperate cravings.

T + 10:15 hours. It’s time to start thinking about dinner. If I eat at home, I will want to have a cigarette afterwards, as I always do. So I decide to go back to the city, leaving the tobacco at home. I take thirty dollars, enough for a decent meal and a beer, and leave the rest of my cash and cards at home, in case I buy something to smoke while I’m in the city. I feel like an explorer as I exit the house.

T + 11 hours. I decided to waste as much time as possible before selecting a restaurant, reasoning that the more time I took the better. I eat at an Indian place and buy a beer, so that the total comes to just under thirty dollars.

T + 11:45 hours. Back at home. I walked off the tension of wanting a cigarette on the way back here. Now I feel a sense of despair at having to fight the cravings for another four or five hours until bedtime. I wait until 9 p.m. to cross off another box and then decide to go out and see a film. Anything to keep my mind off the temptation. I must have thought about having a cigarette several hundred times today, and I am mentally and emotionally exhausted.

T + 14 hours. Time for bed. I lie awake for a bit, but happily my mental exhaustion sees me fall asleep quickly. I figure the best way to avoid temptation is to be unconscious, and I’m about to rack up another eight hours of that. If I can go a whole day without a cigarette now I can do it again tomorrow.

This was day one of using the token economy method (http://psychologyofsmoking.com/tokeneconomymethodone). By using this strategy I became smoke-free and have been for three months now. Please visit my website if you’re interested in learning more about the psychology of smoking (http://psychologyofsmoking.com).

If you have any interesting story or any article geared in stopping nicotine addiction please read our submission guidelines if you want to share them, thank you.

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