The Timer Exercise


Smoking is an extremely simple behavior. Initially, it was your response to body cues that characterize nicotine withdrawal. Specifically:

• muscle tension
• breathing
• mental clarity
• shifts in emotion

Smoking then became your established automatic response to those very same cues any time they were experienced during hunger, anger, loneliness, boredom, fatigue, driving, etc. To change your established automatic response, you have to make the association of a response to a cue a conscious process. Since your auto-pilot typically manages all of this while operating just below your radar, you need a simple effective tool that will remind you to pause and pay attention. Enter, the hour timer.

Hour timers are everywhere and easy to find. You can use a microwave, stove, cell phone, or PDA. Check your local dollar store for a small digital timer, something you can carry with you for a few days. If you want to splurge, I recently bought a digital watch ($19.99) that has an hourly ‘beep’ feature. Aside from an hour timer, you’ll need the Timer Template, which looks like this:

Time -
Situation -
Body Cues -
Rational Responses -

Copy the template 6 - 8 times on a piece of paper and keep it with you. Or, if you spend your day on a computer, start a text document so you can make hourly entries.

Here is how to work with the timer and the template:

1 - When the timer goes off, start by doing a quick ‘body cue check’:
    tension, breathing, etc.

2 - Set your timer for an hour later.

3 - Fill in the template. Keep it simple, use as few words as possible.

    Time - The current time.

    Situation - Name the situation in 1 - 3 words. Look at:
         • What’s going on around you?
         • What are you doing?
         • How are you feeling right now e.g. hungry, angry, tired, lonely, sad,

    Body Cues - Look for body ‘parts’. If you can’t touch or point to it, it’s
       probably not a body cue.
         • Are you experiencing muscle tension? Where - back, shoulders, neck,
           jaw, arms, legs, etc?
         • How is your breathing - shallow, rapid, slow, deep?
         • Do you notice any other physical cues - churning stomach, tight
           chest, thirst, head ache, tired/burning eyes?

    Rational Responses - These are simple effective actions that will
       address the body cues you’ve identified. Keep in mind that every
       response to a body cue must meet two criteria. It must work:
       WELL and NOW.
         • Stretch specific muscles or areas if you’re tense.
         • Deep breathe properly.
         • Eat if hungry.
         • Rest or take a break if fatigued.

4 - Follow through with the responses you’ve chosen for the body cues
    you’ve identified. If you want to create new patterns, you must begin
    to practice new responses.

5 - Put your notes aside and carry on with whatever you’re doing until the
    timer reminds you again in an hour.

Then, repeat steps 1 - 5: run through your ‘body cue check’; reset your timer; fill in the next set of timer notes; follow through with your responses; put your notes aside and carry on. Do this 6 - 8 times through the day.

Here are a few sample timer notes:

Time - Noon
Situation - Before lunch
Body cues - Tense neck, tense hands, shallow breathing, churning
Ration responses - Stretch neck, stretch hands, breathe deep, eat     lunch

Time - 1:00 pm
Situation - On the phone
Body cues - Tense lumbar, breathing shallow
Rational responses - Stand, stretch back, breathe deeply

Time - 2:00 pm
Situation - On the computer
Body cues - Tense neck and shoulders, tense legs, shallow     breathing
Rational responses - Stretch, breathe deeply

At first, you may find it difficult to identify subtle body cues. Keep in mind that your auto-pilot has always been in charge so it’s going to take a bit of practice for you to become aware. However, you’ll find that as you go through this exercise, you’ll begin to recognize your body cues more quickly, more easily, and in greater detail. This exercise should take about one minute, once an hour. It took you approximately five minutes to smoke each cigarette. You made time to smoke, now make time to check your body cues and look after yourself.

The primary purpose of the Timer Exercise is to create a clear and focused awareness of your body cues. It is an examination of how your body physically manifests your daily experiences, your situations. In 35 years of smoking I never lit a cigarette because I thought it was needed. Every cigarette I ever lit was because I felt it was needed. What I felt were body cues. They were my triggers to smoke.

The secondary purpose of the Timer Exercise is to provide a realistic and workable view of smoking. It's common to hear someone say, “I smoked a pack of cigarettes every day.” That pack a day view, while accurate, is vague and often overwhelming. We need is a way to separate a pack into individual instances and observe the details of those instances. This is critical because every cigarette is triggered by specific body cues. The way to take control of a pack a day, is by recognizing and dealing with body cues.As you fill in the hourly template notes, you’ll create a personal data base that includes:

• Individual situations you encounter every day.
• The body cues linked to each situation.
• Non-smoking responses to those cues.

This exercise does require a bit of work, but only for a minute or two at a time. If a timer is not an option during the work day, then use it before and after work. When you do it is unimportant; That you do it, is.

The first step to changing your established smoking response is to become aware of the cues that trigger it. The Timer Exercise is a fairly simple, yet very dramatic, exercise that will help you accurately identify and manage the subtle physical cues that are at the root of all urges to smoke. With this information, you’re ready to take the second step and retrain your auto-pilot to tell you to “take a deep breath” instead of “take a deep drag”.