Zelda became fast friends with Mary another smoker when they both became members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE is a civil rights organization which helped organize the March on Washington and ended with Martin Luther King giving his famous "I have a dream" speech.
After smoking for 30 years Zelda and Mary decided to quit together. While it was difficult, Mary was successful but Zelda was not. Like many smokers, over the years she tried many times to quit but her willpower was not stronger than the temptation to smoke.
Years later they met up again at conference and Mary said, "Why are you still smoking?"
Zelda didn't have a good answer but Mary's words haunted her for the next few days. When she drove Mary to the airport, Zelda turned to her and said, "If I ever smoke again, I'll write a check for $5000 to the Klu Klux Klan."
She quit cold turkey right then and every time she was tempted to smoke a cigarette, she thought of writing that check to the KKK which was such an abhorrent thought that she never smoked again.
Click here to hear Zelda's story
Zelda gave herself no way out of this deal. This type of action is called a "pre-commitment" which involves making a binding agreement with a huge cost if a temptation is acted upon. Neuroimaging studies on the brain are now showing how pre-commitment is different than willpower and uses different parts of the brain. Click here to read about it.
As any smoker who has tried to quit knows, using willpower alone makes it almost impossible to resist temptation when it pops up. Even with the best of intentions and having good reasons to quit, the long term benefits of becoming smoke-free are not strong enough to overcome that immediate pleasure of smoking a cigarette. Willpower breaks down when an immediate temptation creates that strong impulse or craving to act now by smoking.
Using a functional MRI, we can now see how pre-commitment can help in staying smoke-free. Our brains have a memory and a smoker's brain may recognize that in past experiences willpower has failed to resist temptation and that failure is repeated when faced with a new temptation. But when a smoker has made a pre-commitment and is tempted to smoke, a different part of the brain is used which eliminates this short term temptation. A pre-commitment, or a binding choice becomes an alternative to willpower.
So the trick is to make a deal with yourself that is so horrible that you will do anything to avoid it and tie that commitment to the act of smoking, like Zelda did by imagining writing a $5000 check to the KKK if she smoked even one cigarette.
What deal will you make with yourself? Make the decision to follow through if you do smoke and stick to it. Give yourself no way out. Making a pre-commitment may be all you need to stay smoke-free forever.