Ash Wednesday - The fine art of giving things up and resisting temptation
Today marks the first day of Lent, traditionally a period of abstinence. Mark Hayes is giving up coffee, but as someone who has successfully quit drinking, eating meat and smoking, he knows more than most about resisting temptation
There are a few reasons it's easy to tell Lent starts today. First of all, you'll see lots of normally spotless people walking around with big unsightly smudges on their heads. There's also the fading whiff of pancakes in the air. But the biggest clue is all the people asking: "What are you giving up?"
In case you're unaware, Lent is a time when Christians fast or deny themselves certain luxuries in a nod to the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent wandering in the desert. The idea is restraint, repentance, reflection... but mainly it's about people going on the wagon of their choice.
Even though I'm an atheist, Lent resonates with me. Despite having never gone the six weeks of Lent as a child with as much as a 10pc drop in my sweet intake, it turns out I'm actually pretty good at giving things up.
After many years as a meat-eater, smoker and, if I do say so myself, talented drinker, one by one I decided to quit them all. And now, somewhat ironically, I've become almost addicted to giving things up. Most recently I gave up sugar in my coffee and now, because it's Lent, I've decided to cut out coffee altogether - y'know, just for kicks.
I know some people struggle greatly with giving things up, and the thoughts of six weeks with no Jaffa Cakes will today be filling many Lent observers with dread.
But I found it surprisingly easy. I didn't read any 'how to' books or use any commercial quit aids. However, in retrospect, I used several different methods.
With meat, I gradually weaned myself off it as an idealistic teenager. I gave up red meat first but continued eating fish for a few months. Then I stopped fish. And it was no big trauma because I wasn't really denying myself anything - I was just choosing to eat one thing instead of another.
Smoking was different. I went 'cold turkey' - I quit overnight with no gum or patches, and just rode out a few weeks where I was twitchy and tetchy and a little bit wired to the moon.
And I gave up drinking initially for a year, mainly for health reasons, but when I stopped I never went back.
Obviously, everyone is different, and I'm no expert - but here's a few details of what worked for me.
1. Think short term first: The thoughts of giving something up for ever and ever are daunting, so with most things it's good to quit for a short time and see how you get on. For example, even the six weeks of Lent without a glass of wine might seem tough, but after a few weeks you'll probably find that you don't miss it half as much as you thought you would.
After the six weeks, you can choose to go back on the drink if you see fit, but you do so with a glimpse of what life looks like without the thing you are giving up.
2. Motivation: Whether you are talking about giving up for Lent or for the rest of your life, there's no point trying to give something up without good reason.
If you are a smoker or a drinker, you'll probably mull over giving up for years or months before you actually do it. Or maybe you've had a health scare, maybe you want to save money, maybe it's because you want to increase your chances of being around as long as possible for your kids or your grandkids.
But once you make the leap, you'll need to remember that the thing that motivated you is more important to you than the thing you are giving up, because there will be times you'll need that thought to beat temptation.
3. Will power: You will need to exercise some will power and determination, but again that's not necessarily as hard as you think. There will be stressful moments when you want to crack, but you'll find that the cigarettes don't light themselves and jump into your mouth; pints won't sneak down your gullet while you are yawning.
So you just need to make up your mind and stick to it. And with most addictions, the physical cravings go away quite soon, so you are looking at a few weeks of pure thick-headed stubbornness.
4. Quit aids: When I quit smoking I used two things to help me. First, I quit at the same time as my now wife, so we supported/threatened each other into staying strong during those early weeks.
The second thing was that we jumped on a bandwagon - we smoked our last cigarettes at about 11.40pm on March 28, 2004 - the night before the brave new world of the smoking ban.
So when we were out in a pub in the following weeks, there was a feeling that everyone was in the same boat as us, just that we weren't nipping out in the cold for a fag. So a bandwagon such as Lent or Dry January is a good idea.
We didn't use any gum or patches - I had friends who were on the gum for years and they were still addicted to nicotine. Afterwards, I was surprised by how easy it was to quit smoking - and I think that both the tobacco industry and the stop-smoking industry make their money on you believing that you couldn't possibly be strong enough to get by without their products. It benefits them if you believe it's harder than it actually is.
5. Accentuate the positive: If you give something up, you will gain something. It could be cash saved, it could be time not spent sleeping off your hangovers, it could be an upswing in your general health. Or possibly all three. So you can reward yourself - take up a hobby, go to the movies more often, run a marathon, learn an instrument, the choice is yours.
Just be careful not to be too smug when you succeed!