If you are a smoker, there probably isn’t a day that goes by when you don’t think about quitting.

Chances are you’ve already tried and found it to be one of the most difficult things you ever attempted in your life. That’s why a great place to start with ending your smoking habit is to acknowledge just how hard it is to quit.

According to a study published in The BMJ Journal from researchers at the University of Toronto, it can take a smoker 30 attempts or more to stay cigarette free for a full year.

Smokers are not weak-willed or somehow lacking in discipline compared to others. Cigarette addiction is not reflective of character or moral failings. The truth is, smokers wrestle with a drug that is very, very powerful.

But help in finally kicking the nicotine habit to the curb may come from an unusual place: Six Sigma, a methodology for process improvement in business that first began with Motorola in the 1980s. But to understand how it might help, you have to first understand there are two main areas in quitting smoking: physical and psychological.

Kicking the Habit

The immediate issue with quitting smoking is primarily physical. A body must adjust to not getting nicotine and the other chemicals, some also addictive, that are in cigarettes.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, you can expect the following when you stop smoking: irritability, anxiety, deep cravings for nicotine, headaches and hunger. It’s no picnic, but it’s also temporary. Depending on the person, these symptoms can be as short-lived as a couple of days or as long as about a week.

Psychological cravings, however, can last many years. The real trick to long-term quitting is dealing with the psychological issues, especially the triggers that cause you to want to have a cigarette.

It’s in this area that Six Sigma can help you identify those triggers and deal with them. It also can help you develop behavioral changes that lead to long-lasting success.

If you have a nicotine addiction, you are not alone. President Barack Obama started smoking as a teen and didn’t completely stop until 2011. Academy Award-winning screenwriters and actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck both smoked for decades. Actress Joanne Woodward quit smoking on her 60th birthday, proving it’s never too late.

Six Sigma and DMAIC

While it can’t help you with the physical withdrawal from cigarettes, Six Sigma can help you define and deal with one of the hardest aspects of quitting: trigger points for smoking.

These are the situations in which you are used to having a cigarette. Typical places include the car, after a meal, over morning coffee or while drinking alcohol. Also, stressful situations of any kind can lead people back to smoking.

Six Sigma offers a process that can help: DMAIC, which stands for define, measure, analyze, improve and control. It offers a straightforward way for you to quit smoking by looking at your own behavior, particularly when it comes to triggers.

Here’s a step-by-step guide at how this process can help you deal with the triggers that lead to smoking again.

Define

In business, people who use Six Sigma often keep a log book to keep track of the details of a process. This can work perfectly with smoking triggers. Every time you feel a craving for a cigarette, write down the circumstances. Be very detailed – the time, the place, what you were doing and also what you were thinking. The better you can define the circumstances that lead to a craving, the better you can deal with them.

Consider creating a Project Charter, another Six Sigma tool for the define stage. This requires listing the goals of your project (quitting smoking), who it will impact (yourself, friends, family, coworkers) and how to measure success in each phase (slowly cutting down the number of cigarettes smoked over a defined time frame, for example, and eventually quitting).

Measure

This takes the details from the define stage and refines them further. Simply put, you are measuring the impact on the final goal of each process. In this case, what triggers were most likely to lead to smoking again? Which ones did you find it easier to resist? Consider ranking them in order of the highest problem area. Essentially, you are collecting data and measuring its impact on future results.

During this phase and the next, it’s worth considering implementation of “The Five Whys:” used in Six Sigma. In this technique, you drill down to the basic problem: I want to quit smoking but certain situations lead me to smoking again.

In the next step, ask why this happens. For example, “Because I had a social occasion with people I used to always smoke with” or “After a meal, when I used to always smoke, I went outside the place where I used to smoke.”

Move forward to change the situation, but loop back to step 2 if you find you haven’t addressed the root cause. In many cases, you may have to go back four or five times before you determine the root cause.

Analyze

Now that you’ve defined the triggers and measured their impact, it’s time to analyze each situation. What events led up to you reaching a trigger point? For example, did you agree to join coworkers for a happy hour to please someone, knowing just one beer would trigger a smoking craving? Or did you agree to grill in the backyard even though you spent years having a cigarette while doing so before?

This is the area where you define places to make improvements. In business, this typically is the stage where groups involved with a project get together and discuss problem areas and possible solutions. In this case, this could be a good time to discuss your quitting smoking project with others if you haven’t already. Include family, friends and coworkers – anyone who is impacted by your smoking and who may also (unknowingly) be putting you in trigger situations.

A quick aside: This doesn’t mean you will never grill, go to happy hour or do other things you now associate with smoking. Once you have conquered the addiction to nicotine, you can gradually work these things back into your life. But during the quitting phase, there are simply some situations that need to be avoided.

Improve

Time for action! In this phase, Six Sigma calls for running a test program that makes changes to improve results. In this case, you can now come up with and implement a plan of behavior change that keeps you away from triggers. Some examples might include:

  • Avoiding situations where you used to smoke
  • In places you can’t avoid – such as the car or your home – completely clean them to eliminate any odors of smoking and get rid of anything to do with smoking (ashtrays, lighters, matches, etc.)
  • Switch, at least for a time, from coffee in the morning to tea
  • Avoid alcohol until you get the addiction under control
  • Avoid stressful situations as much as possible. This could even entail cutting people out of your life who stress you out and, according to your data collection, have led you to a smoking trigger point (again, this doesn’t have to be permanent)

Remember, you are testing here. Don’t give up if the first plan doesn’t work. Keep trying different approaches until you find one that works. The guiding principle of Six Sigma is continuous improvement.

Control

At this point, you have tested various methods and come up with a plan that keeps you from situations that trigger a relapse into smoking.

Now, it’s time to measure success. Keep track of how things are going. Monitor the cravings again, and make note of chunks of time when you don’t have any, too. Eventually, this will stretch into days, weeks and months. Keeping track allows you to measure success and also note any tweaks you need to make if you still have trigger events in certain situations.

And when you reach this stage, remember to reward yourself. Take some of the money you were spending on cigarettes and buy yourself something you always wanted, no matter how impractical. You’ve accomplished something amazing – you deserve it!

A final note. Nothing – hypnosis, drugs, peer pressure or Six Sigma – can help you stop smoking unless you really want to quit smoking. And even if you want to, it won’t be easy.

But it can be done. Give yourself a break and don’t be so quick to judge yourself a failure. Apply the methodology above and keep trying. Eventually, you will succeed and be amazed at how much better life can be without the hazards of cigarette smoking.

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