Habit Coach Ashdin Doctor, the author of three books on habits and how to change your life was in Kunzum for a book signing. We caught up with him over a cup of coffee and discussed habits, his books, and his experiences.
Kunzum: How did the idea of becoming a habit coach come about? Was it from personal experience, or was it by observing other people?
Ashdin: It happened from personal experience. I went through my own change and transformation that happened. A very stressful job, very stressful relationships, it was stress at work, stress at home, that kind of thing. And typically, how do we deal with stress? Stress eat, right. I was stress eating like crazy… muffins, cupcakes, chocolates. And because I was doing well at work, I thought I deserved all of it. It was all, you know, butter chicken, jeera rice every single day. And the more I could eat, the better. And then you reach one point where you start making fun of how your belly is growing, so you start rubbing it and saying see “Prosperity is happening” like “Laughing Buddha”. You know those kinds of things and that’s the stage that I was in and health was 0. This is, I’m talking about 14 years ago. I reached a stage when I was realizing that something had to change. I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs at that point of time. I was getting ready for a presentation and typically in presentation fashion, last-minute panic… had not worked… so was stressed out, had not slept, and all that. I was getting ready and my heart started beating fast, I started perspiring and I collapsed on the floor. This was at age 30. Once I recovered from this, I realized life can’t continue this way and I was a typical Taipei type person. Taipei means it has to be the best of whatever I do. At that point of time I said, what is the hardest goal? Get myself a six pack. So from a nice big belly, it had to become a six pack and I went on my own personal journey. I realized that from not being able to climb a flight of stairs, there’s no way that I could do a one-hour workout and all the workouts that we had were Insanity, P90X, all those one-hour hardcore workouts. I couldn’t complete the first 5 minutes of it. Then I discovered something called a four-minute Tabata Workout. So I went through it and I realized that what I actually did and inculcated in my life was the ability to breakdown something to small, small parts and make it a part of my life to almost this point where it went on autopilot. I didn’t need to necessarily focus or stress out about it. People saw this change after a year. My six-pack happened. People kept asking me how you did it and when I told them that I did intermittent fasting, I did these exercises and all of that. They said ‘mujh se na ho payega (I won’t be able to do it). I don’t have your motivation’. And that’s when the idea of habit coaching happened. Because family business was market research and I’d done that for 15 years. And I wanted to give back to society in some way or form. So I said that let me start habit coaching as a side business. I’ll take on five clients. By the end of the year I had 25 clients. I said, wow, this is something I need to focus on and that’s how it grew.
Kunzum: Some of the habits that you are getting people to take up are what we know as common sense such as eating healthy, not judging too many people or being mindful of what you are doing and of yourself. What is it that holds people back from actually using these habits by themselves? Why do they need a habit coach?
Ashdin: There are two parts to this. The first is that very often we are misinformed on what we are supposed to do. Now, where do people get their information from? That’s the first thing. Normally, you’ll hear them say ‘people say’. But people say that you must wake up and have lauki juice with a squeeze of lime in the morning. Who is saying this? Is it that overweight uncle who is telling you this? But he himself hasn’t lost weight, why would you believe that it’s going to work? ‘No, my hairdresser’ told me. Your hairdresser told you? Where is your information coming from? Is it vetted? So, I run a podcast called the Habit Coach Podcast. We have over 1200 episodes and have been doing this for a while. We’re one of the top podcasts in the country. And each habit has been vetted, either by me or by my clients, before I even talk about it, because you can only talk from experience with authority. Otherwise, it’s just hawa mein that you are talking. So the first problem is that you’re getting misinformation. The second problem is that when you are making a change, you are inspiration to make a change. That means you saw someone you know work hard and buy a private jet. You think you can also do it. Your modality of creating the change is different. You have not seen the hard work that that person did to form the habits that he is using now. You’re not seeing the baby steps. You have only seen the final product? And that’s the problem.
Kunzum: Do you think there should be some sort of a course for students ranging from, let’s say Class 7 to Class 11, teaching them about the good habits that they should be inculcating within themselves and which can stay with them for life?
Ashdin: One of my dreams has been to have a subject on life in schools because nobody teaches us how to be friends. Nobody teaches us communication. Nobody teaches us simple life skills. We learn from our parents and half the time our parents don’t know either. They figure it out and struggle through life. But if there is an actual way of knowing what is it that we can do, it’s far better. In fact, my second book, which is called the Book of Good Habits for Kids, is about this: Eight habits for children between the ages of 6 to 9. Things like gratitude, which kids need to have, and comes actually very naturally to them. The habit of solitude, habit of creativity, habit of friendship, habit of investing money not just saving it. So all these things are part of this particular book. And I believe that if you start early, seventh, eighth standard may be too late, I am saying start even earlier and you’ll see a change in the kids.
Kunzum: How difficult was it to write these books?
Ashdin: I’ve written three books: Change Your Habits, Change Your Life; The Book of Good Habits for Kids and One Habit a Day. One habit A Day is very interesting. We’ve taken 31 episodes from the podcast, which I’ve written. So they were all scripted episodes and converted them into a workbook. You can read it and then have exercises that you can follow along and actually make a change. So for me this was not hard because I already had the episodes from 3, 4, 5 years ago. We’ve selected special ones on mental well-being for this book. The first book took me 6 to 7 months to write. But before that, it took a long time to get down to writing it because most people have books in their heads that they die with, because they never actually sit down to write them. I was probably going to go the same way till I saw one master class by a couple of authors that I really like. And they said something very simple. They said the only way to write a book is to treat it like a job. Two hours a day you have to dedicatedly sit in front of your laptop and put out either 750 words or 1000 words every single day Now, 750 words is one script and because I had been writing them, I thought, every day I will write 750 words either for a script or for the book and within 5-6 months the book was done. So I was ready to self-publish it and that’s when the whole Harper Collins and publishing happened for that book. So it was very different. The writing of that book versus the one for this.
Kunzum: Is there a one-size-fits-all habits philosophy that everyone in this world can adopt?
Ashdin: The philosophy on how to create habits, yes, which is following the three golden rules of habit change: make it stupidly small, make it extremely easy and never miss two days in a row. So this is what the first book covers. But there are certain habits that I think should be universal across all of us. The habit of gratitude is one that should be universal. Why? Because when we are in a state of gratitude, there are two things that don’t exist in our life anymore. One is entitlement, which is something that we all feel right now. If you realize in the world around us, entitlement is one of the big things that is creating disparity amongst people. And the second one is fear. When you are in a state of gratitude, fear cannot exist in your life. So every time you’re scared about something, if you spend five minutes thinking about 10 things you’re grateful for, that fear will disappear. So I think this is one habit that can be universal for people.
Kunzum: Your new book One Habit a Day has some fun stories such as the one from Ur and exercises for people to do. What kind of research went into finding such stories?
Ashdin: I had to write out a new podcast every day and I wanted to come up with a way that was interesting and creative for me and this is where fun facts of the day started. So each habit has a fun fact of the day that you start off with because you’re like, “oh, I didn’t know this. Cool, let me think about it”. Like the one on not being complacent which talks about how the Japanese fishermen used to put one small shark in their fish tank to make sure that the fish stay fresh. So they keep swimming around. And this is how they have fresh fish coming to them. Otherwise the trawlers would go out, catch fish, keep them alive in water tanks. But all the fish would settle at the bottom since they don’t need to run away from anything. So they put one small shark and the shark would chase all the fish around and the fish would remain fresh and healthy. So what is our shark? So that’s the way that I like to think about the stories.
Kunzum: There is an exercise in your book that challenges people who take up a habit that they have tried earlier and not been able to keep up with. What is the main reason behind people not being able to keep up with these habits?
Ashdin: The first one is that they’ve chosen a habit that is too difficult to do. Very often we choose habits that are difficult because we need to feel worthy doing it. You know, when you are at a cocktail party or at a party, you say, “I’m trying this right now”. It has to be worthy. You can’t say I’m trying this tiny little habit. You say, “I am doing one-and-a-half hours of yoga”. I tell people if you want to learn yoga your first step is to just roll out the mat every day. That is your habit. Now that you’re standing on the mat, you’ll probably do one Surya Namaskar which would at least happen, otherwise it would not have happened. One is better than 0. So the idea is that we very often think about habits as being very, very difficult and we try to keep those difficult habits. That’s where most of us fail.
Kunzum: What is the biggest challenge for people to adopt good habits?
Ashdin: Firstly, there’s no such thing as good or bad habits, there are habits. Whether the habit is taking you towards your goal or away from it is what you have to look at. So good or bad is a judgment call. We don’t use good or bad; we say, is this habit taking you towards a goal that you have in your life or is it moving you away? I just came from a place where we had a long discussion on smoking. But smoking, if it’s taking you towards your goal, then continue, but if it’s keeping you away from a goal, then stop it. The most difficult thing to start a habit is finding the space and time for it. What I mean by this is that our days are packed with habits already. We have to figure out where in our day can we squeeze this new thing in that causes the least ripples in the rest of our day.
Otherwise what happens is we force fit something into our day and then the rest of the day falls apart, right? So, we try and go to the gym suddenly out of the blue and early in the morning, but the rest of the day is suddenly falling apart, because now you’re playing catch up. How do you find moments in the day to add your habits? That I think is the most difficult thing for people to do.
Kunzum: So you’ve been doing this the last 14 odd years now. How many lives have you touched so far? Or helped improve or given them good habits.
Ashdin: So our listener base is over 5 million odd people. So there’s a lot of numbers from the the podcast itself. Personally, one-on-one through workshops etc 25-50,000 I’m guessing. We do 3 workshops a week now, so it’s like…
Kunzum: We know eating healthy is good for us, we want to focus, we want to be able to do something on our own. We have to follow a certain type of lifestyle. What is it that keeps people away from that? Is it lack of motivation or they don’t have the time? What is it?
Ashdin: Now we already have the habit of not doing it. We think that we inherit our parents’ genes, but more than our parents’ genes, we’ve actually inherited our parents’ habits. We subconsciously pick up what they are doing. We picked up our friends’ habits. We picked up the habits of people around us and we don’t know that we’re doing. So we don’t realize I’m eating unhealthy food. Very often, when I talk to people about the way we eat and they think they’re eating healthy. I normally ask people, so what is it that you normally eat? “No, no, I eat normal food,” they say. Ok. But what is your normal food? Your normal is different from my normal. It’s different from somebody else’s normal food. The point is that we think it’s normal food. White bread is technically not normal food. It has never existed for most of humankind, right? Suddenly now sliced bread, white bread with preservatives, etc that does not get spoiled is a part of our normal everyday food. It didn’t exist earlier. It’s understanding these things and then learning how to tweak them. Processed cheese does not have cheese in it. So, where is this cheese funda coming from? So getting a good fermented products etc makes a big difference. So I think it’s these aspects.
Kunzum: Amid all of this, we lose what are our own habits and we acquire newer habits which aren’t our own. So thereby we are losing ourselves.
Ashdin: The idea is to move from unconsciously, subconsciously picked up habits to ones that you consciously pick up and change. So, by default people drink milk coffee. Right, because they’ve always been drinking it like that. Like when you asked right now if I wanted some cream or sugar in my coffee. In my mind, it didn’t occur to me that I should be doing something like this because I changed that habit a long time ago. I used to have milk tea that was in a humongous mug everyday with enough sugar in it to fuel us for 4-5 days. You could put a spoon inside it and it’d probably stand up straight. That’s the amount of sugar I’d take, because my mom used to drink like this. Right. My grandmother used to drink that sweet tea. So that’s how I started drinking it. Till I realized that I need to make a change in it, so unconscious habit became a conscious change for myself.
Kunzum: So Ashdin from 14 years ago and Ashdin today, what kind of differences are you seeing in your personal habits?
Ashdin: Personal habits, dramatically. Let me first describe physically. Grey skin, extremely dull, no energy, lethargy, needing external validation constantly. This is a very interesting one. When you start working on yourself and when you start getting the confidence that comes from inside, you no longer rely on brands or things to necessarily show off. I remember this thing so sharply. I was walking with my father in a shopping mall and I was telling my dad that, you know, right now I would be in that Mont Blanc shop trying to pick up something for myself. And that Zegna shop trying to pick up something, or at least lusting after something to pick up right now, I don’t feel the need for it at all now. I think that as a change is so dramatic because then you enter a room with your own confidence instead of relying on something else that you need for.
Kunzum: What is the one message you want to give out to the people?
Ashdin: That that awesome life that you have, that you want to create for yourself, starts when you start choosing the first habit that you want to change. So your awesome habit starts at the end of the habits that you start creating, and very often we have forgotten to dream or even believe that we can have an awesome life. So, step one, start dreaming, start thinking that that awesome life that you want is on the corner and it’s just around the next habit that you create for yourself.
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