Find Your Smoking Triggers

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on April 21, 2021

If you’re a smoker, you know the drill. Finish a meal and you suddenly feel a powerful craving for a cigarette. Get up from your desk to take a break, and all at once you want to light up. Certain times of the day, places, and even some foods can spark a strong urge to smoke.

Experts call these triggers. And there can be a lot of them. They can happen when you:·

  • Drink your morning tea or coffee
  • Have a beer, cocktail, or glass of wine
  • Drive
  • Get up during intermission at a show
  • Check your texts or email
  • Feel bored, sad, angry, or stressed
  • Talk on the phone
  • Need a break from work

Even positive feelings of happiness or pleasure can be triggers.

Learn to Spot Your Smoking Triggers

Once you know yours, you can prepare to avoid or manage them.

Before you quit, keep a journal for a few days or a week. Use your smartphone or a small notebook that you can easily carry with you. Every time you light a cigarette, record:

  • The time of day
  • How intense your craving feels, on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the most intense)
  • What you’re doing at that moment
  • Where you are
  • Who you’re with
  • How you feel (happy, stressed, bored, etc.)

Be as precise in your notes as possible. Keep your journal for at least one weekday and one weekend day, since your routine is likely to be different on those days.

Once you’re done, review your journal. List your most powerful triggers, based on the intensity of your craving. Which triggers happen most often? Note places, people, situations, and moods that set off a craving to smoke.

Defuse Smoking Triggers in Advance

Triggers are a form of conditioned response. If you’re used to smoking a cigarette during a coffee break, for example, you begin to link even the smell of coffee with smoking.

You’ll need to outsmart your triggers before they strike. To do this, change your routines to break your most powerful triggers.

If driving is a trigger, for instance, practice driving short distances without smoking. If coffee brings on a craving, try to take a coffee break without one, or switch to a different drink or coffee shop.

Avoid Situations That Spark a Craving to Smoke

Before your quit date, look over your list of triggers and put a checkmark beside those that you can reasonably avoid.

If you have friends you’re used to smoking with, for example, decide in advance not to see them during the first few weeks of quitting. Let them know why.

You might want to stop drinking alcohol for a while, since it might undermine your determination to stay smoke-free.

Do you tend to smoke while you watch TV? You’ll want to do something else or watch at a place where smoking isn’t an option. If you usually light up when you take the dog for a walk, take a different route. Again, the idea is to hack all the habits related to smoking.

The more thoroughly you change your usual routine, the easier it will be to steer clear of triggers. Instead of breakfast and a cigarette first thing in the morning, take a short walk around the neighborhood. If you usually step outside to smoke a cigarette during a break at work, do a few simple exercises such as deep knee bends or stretches at your desk instead. Whenever possible, go to places where you can’t smoke, such as libraries, museums, or theaters.

Plan Ways to Resist Smoking Triggers You Can’t Avoid

You can’t avoid all your triggers, all the time. So get ready for them and have a plan for when they strike.

Bring along something else to put in your mouth instead of a cigarette, such as a mint-flavored toothpick or some carrot sticks. On a walk, take deep breaths and focus on how good the fresh air feels in your lungs. To ride out a craving, you could also sip ice-cold water, take deep breaths, keep your hands busy by squeezing a rubber ball or doing a crossword puzzle, or meditating.

Each time you resist a trigger and don’t light up, you’ve won back some of the power that smoking has over you. Most cravings only last a few minutes. As you ride them out, you’ll be one step closer to a lifetime free of nicotine.

WebMD Medical Reference



Steven Schroeder, MD, director, Smoking Cessation Leadership Center, University of California, San Francisco.

Scott McIntosh, PhD, associate professor of community and preventive medicine, University of Rochester, New York; director, Greater Rochester Area Tobacco Cessation Center.

National Cancer Institute.

American Cancer Society: “Guide to Quitting Smoking.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

QuitNow Canada.

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
Click to view privacy policy and trust info