Be a Quitter: How to Break Your Worst Habits
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Be a Quitter: How to Break Your Worst Habits

What does it take to shake a bad habit? We called in a squad of experts to help three women work on their vices. What they learned about motivation and willpower could help you be a quitter too. We found experts to help three women kick their bad habits.

The Online Shopaholic

Alicia Benjamin, 32, Boston

For most of her life, Alicia Benjamin was content to hunt for clothing bargains. But when she moved from Phoenix to Boston to live with her boyfriend, her wardrobe suddenly seemed lackluster. "My coworkers looked so put together, and I started learning about designer brands I'd never heard of," she says. Armed with two credit cards, she went shopping for a new style -- and ended up $6,700 in debt.

Her weakness: shopping online, particularly at flash-sale sites like Rue La La and Ideeli. "I'd get so caught up in the moment, thinking, ?This top is 80 percent off and I have five minutes left to buy it,?" says Benjamin. She'd tried deleting the shopping apps on her phone and unsubscribing from sale e-mails but kept getting sucked back in.

When we met Benjamin, she was ordering clothes every other day, usually during lulls at work. She suspected she was shopping out of boredom and loneliness -- she had few friends in her new city -- but couldn't find a way to stop clicking "buy."

The expert: Kit Yarrow, PhD, psychology chair at Golden Gate University in San Francisco

Her give-it-up guide: "Most regimented spending plans don't work because they make you feel guilty for wanting to buy things," explains Dr. Yarrow. Instead, she'd help Benjamin understand why she was over-shopping so she'd make smarter, more conscious spending decisions. She told Benjamin to create a list of her financial priorities and track her purchases on a spreadsheet, noting where she was when she bought something and how she felt at the time.

She also urged Benjamin to stop calling herself a shopping addict. "That can make you feel helpless," explains Dr. Yarrow. "I wanted her to see herself as someone in control."

How it worked: "I was worried Dr. Yarrow would say, 'This is your budget -- you have x amount to spend on such-and-such,'" says Benjamin. "I'm stubborn and don't like being told what to do, so her approach was perfect. I started spending less right away because keeping the spreadsheet made me hyper-aware of my purchases. I decided to track things I almost bought, too. Seeing that I could turn down purchases was empowering.

"Early on, I called Dr. Yarrow during a freak-out. I wasn't shopping online; I was at the Gap holding a pile of clothes, wondering if I should buy it all or put everything back. We went through each item and she asked me things like, 'What do you like about this? Where would you wear it?' If I didn't have a good answer, she'd say, 'I don't think you really love that.' I bought a vest I gushed about and ditched the rest. The experience taught me that it's more satisfying to get one item that fits your wardrobe perfectly than to buy a bunch of so-so stuff.

"I kept my spending priority list on my iPhone, and checking it became a regular part of my filtering process. One night I saw an amazing blouse online and thought: Do I love this? Is it more valuable to me than taking my dream vacation to Amsterdam? I didn't buy it.

"Eventually I got busier at work, which took my mind off shopping. I started running more often, putting my energy into something healthy and productive instead of killing time online. One night I logged on to one of my favorite sites and thought, Eh, I don't really want to spend my money. I had other things going on to make me happy.

"I used to feel controlled by my urges to shop, and the excitement was in the buy, not the item itself. Thanks to Dr. Yarrow, I spend a lot less these days because I think through every purchase. Now that I've prioritized my wants and needs, I don't waste my money on frivolous stuff."

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The Die-Hard Smoker

Alberta Daniels, 45, Chicago

A 30-year smoker, Alberta Daniels didn't want to quit her pack-a-day habit but knew she had to. "I'm coughing more and my chest is starting to hurt," she told us.

She'd tried kicking butts four times previously, using a nicotine patch and lozenges. Once she quit for four months but relapsed and smoked a whole pack in a night.

Daniels told us she puffed to deal with job stress; she took several smoke breaks during the workday to ease her tension. At night, she'd shut herself in her bedroom and smoke to unwind.

The expert: Carol Southard, RN, a tobacco treatment specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago

Her give-it-up guide: Southard says it's a myth that smokers have to want to quit in order to succeed. "We do them a huge disservice by telling them to wait until they're ready. It's more important that they decide to quit and learn how to do it."

To give Daniels the best shot at kicking the habit, Southard enrolled her in a smoking cessation support group and prescribed nicotine patches and Chantix, a drug that shuts down the brain's nicotine receptors. Based on her experience, Southard felt the combination would give Daniels a significant chance of ditching cigarettes for good. "Smokers who try to quit without group support or medication have only a 3 to 5 percent chance of succeeding," she says.

How it worked: "I confess I didn't quit 100 percent at first," says Daniels. "I'd sneak two or three cigarettes a day. Carol said that allowing myself to smoke at all was a slippery slope. It was just so hard! I needed to smoke to deal with the work and financial drama in my life, but Carol called me out on my excuses. 'Having a cigarette isn't going to solve your problems,' she'd tell me.

"She suggested I alter my routine to avoid situations that made me want to light up. So instead of smoking in my bedroom when I got home from work, I sat outside and talked to my sister, who lives upstairs. Later, when I'd normally make coffee -- which always triggers a cigarette craving -- I hung out in the living room with my daughters. I'd never expose anyone to secondhand smoke so it helped to avoid being alone.

"Initially, I didn't tell my daughters and my 4-year-old grandson, Trevone, that I was quitting because I didn't want them to bug me. When I finally did, they were thrilled, especially Trevone. He'd learned about the dangers of smoking at preschool and had been begging me to stop.

"The withdrawal was rough, even with the patch. (I stopped taking Chantix after I broke out in a rash; I learned later that it was due to anxiety, not the drug.) I yelled at people, my concentration was off, and I was making mistakes at work. Going to the support group meetings helped because I saw that other people were struggling, too.

"Eight weeks into the program, I noticed I felt a lot better. One day I had to run a half block and up a flight of stairs to catch the train, and I wasn't winded. That was incredible. My sense of smell and taste improved too. When I stood next to a smoker, I'd think, Damn, that's what I used to smell like? I can't believe nobody told me!

"Today, I still want to smoke but I just don't. I wear the patch faithfully, and I even went back on Chantix because I want to kill the cravings for good. Now that I feel so much healthier, I've started kickboxing. I love it! It's another incentive to stay off cigarettes: If I smoke, I won't be able to kickbox.

"When I'd relapse during my past attempts to stop smoking, I'd think: Forget it. So what if I don't quit? But this time I didn't want to let Carol down -- or my family. When Trevone said, 'I'm glad you don't smoke those cigarettes anymore, Grandma,' it was a really proud moment."

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The Soda Fiend

Alison Keith, 33, Austin, Texas

Downing two liters of caffeinated regular soda was a daily habit of Alison Keith for the past 15 years. The busy wife and mom -- who works two jobs while attending nursing school -- felt she needed soda for energy. She also found it soothing. "We always had sugary stuff in the house when I was growing up," she explains. "It was a reward."

Keith hoped quitting soda would help her slim down and avoid developing diabetes, which runs in her family. She also wanted to set a good example for her 7-year-old son, Max.

She'd tried to kick her soda habit several times before but couldn't make the break for good. "When I feel stressed, I go right back to soda," she says.

The expert: Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet

Her give-it-up guide: First, Gans needed to know if Keith's diet played a role in her soda cravings. She asked her to keep a food diary, noting what and when she ate. When Gans scanned the first week of entries, she saw why Keith felt sluggish and dependent on soda. She usually skipped breakfast, which sapped her energy and set her up for high-calorie cravings later. To make matters worse, she sometimes went seven or eight hours between meals. "If you don't eat every four or five hours, your blood sugar can dip, triggering your body to seek out a sweet fix," Gans explains. Finally, Keith's diet -- high in refined carbs and low in protein -- simply wasn't filling. Gans's solution: Help Keith plan balanced, satisfying meals and snacks so she wouldn't sip soda out of hunger or lack of energy.

How it worked: "The first thing I did was buy soda in cans instead of bottles so I'd be more aware of how much I was drinking," says Keith. "Because I only like cold soda, I decided to keep the cans in my kitchen cabinets instead of the fridge so they'd be less tempting. Those strategies got me down to about two cans of soda a day.

"Unfortunately, I started relying on other sweet drinks and candy instead. So I focused on meeting the daily food goals Keri had set, like bringing healthy snacks to work and eating fruit or veggies with each meal, so I'd feel full and energized. Her advice was reasonable but I felt overwhelmed.

"Halfway through the process, I was impatient with my lack of progress, so I quit soda cold turkey for a week. Keri was against it but I wanted to shake things up. Huge mistake! My sugar cravings got worse. I ate frozen yogurt, a granola bar, a candy bar, a snow cone, and half a Danish in one afternoon. I went back on Keri's plan.

"Some of the tips were working for me. For example, my food diary showed I had more energy on the days I ate more protein. But I was having trouble finding a substitute beverage for soda. Keri suggested mixing juice with seltzer but that didn't appeal to me.

"For a while I felt like I was doing better. I kept my list of nutrition goals in my notebook so I could evaluate myself at the end of each day. But then it all started to feel like too much pressure again. Keri said that I didn't have to be perfect but it didn't help.

"At the end of three months, I was down seven pounds. Still, I didn't feel like I'd accomplished much. Keri said that even though my diet hadn't really improved, I had gained insight into my soda cravings, which was important.

"But a funny thing happened after we stopped working together: I started following her advice. Now I drink water I infuse with fruit, not soda. I've been really good about eating healthier snacks and more protein. I even track my diet online although I'd hated keeping a food diary! I have a rebellious streak, and I guess now that I'm on my own I don't feel the need to rebel."

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Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2012.