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Mike's success story

Leveraging Habits to Improve Professional Life: The Story of a High Tech Q&R Manager

Alan Nguyen
Alan Nguyen
Back again with another rendition to the Success Stories from one of our long-time users, where he shares about his habit-building experience and deliver wisdom that can all benefit our professional lives.
Table of Contents

For most people, there’s a clear distinction between personal habits and professional life. Therefore, when I met Mike, a Quality & Reliability Manager at Intel, I was immediately surprised. Besides habits for personal health and relationships, Mike has devoted a lot of time to professional habits, which he claimed have helped him to “feel more grounded”. Let's see how this quality manager improves his quality of life!

What brought you to habit tracking in the first place?

I read a lot of self-improvement books, blog posts and also listen to podcasts, which share the same philosophy of forming habits to succeed in life. And according to those sources, one of the key to habits is repetition and monitoring. I remembered reading “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and it was really inspiring. As I got familiar with the concept, I started to look for a habit tracker to jump start my own practice. 

Would you mind sharing about some habits in your typical daily routine?

Absolutely. I try to develop habits across different areas, namely professional, health and personal relationships. One of my mentors at work suggested reading the Wall Street Journal to improve knowledge in my field and world and industry trends. So I set up that habit. My current streak is 74 days.

Another thing is learning Mandarin. I use Duolingo to spend time learning 5 times a week. Now I am at a 272 day streak! 

That is really impressive. What are the changes these habits bring about into your life?

A large proportion of my team is Chinese or Chinese-speaking, and at the same time I interact with a lot of Chinese companies, so learning Mandarin is definitely handy. Although my skills are not sufficient to have a full conversation just yet, people can see that I’m making an effort and they start to open up to me. 

Even just earlier today, I was in a meeting with two Chinese colleagues. When I started the meeting by speaking a few phrases in Mandarin, they were noticeably pleased and the meeting went very smoothly. 

For the Wall Street Journal, it helps me understand what is going on in the world that could potentially impact my team. In fact, when I started, I only read the paper just for the sake of reading it. I didn’t get anything out of it for a long time. But onceI realized that, I started to spend more time on articles related to my field, and afterwards, I start to have more informed conversations with my colleagues. 

For my personal life, I have been meditating for more than 3 years now, using Headspace. I feel it makes me a lot calmer while interacting with people. It definitely helps me feel more well-grounded. 

With more than 3 years of experience, what would you advise people who are new to habit-tracking?

One of the things is to start realistically. At times, I had 30 habits and I found myself stressed out because I couldn’t complete all of them. This is the opposite of what habits mean, right? The point is to find the right habit that makes you better and focus on doing it well. 

Some people put too much emphasis on keeping their streaks live, meaning they still do the habits mindlessly just to keep the streaks from being broken. But as I realized, it is nowhere as effective as putting the real work in, even if we have to break the streak when we can’t put in real effort for a day or two, for whatever reason. 

A vivid example is my meditation experience. It is really noticeable if I do it but don’t put effort into the quality of a session. I become more reactive to people at work, everything seems to bug me more, I can get irritable! 

What are your criteria to choose “the right habit”? 

I always ask myself: “What is the thing that makes the biggest impact in my life”? For example, if I have to choose between getting an 8-hour night of sleep and running 3 miles, I’ll choose the former, because it makes a bigger impact to my health personally. 

For newbies, knowing the “right habit” is a bit challenging because they haven’t even been felt the impact. What should they do?

It’s a matter of perspective. We should bear in mind that a tree takes a while to grow. Similarly, habits take a while to have an impact on us. Patience is important in this case.

Earlier this year, I started a habit to run every day, even though I haven’t been running for over a year. Initially I was just walking for only 20 - 25 minutes. I tried to run but it was very difficult. 

It was not until I was worried about not improving that I realized a change. After 1.5 months, I ran much faster. I ended up losing 15 pounds! 

Agreed. Habits trigger incremental changes that slowly build up to something bigger than our expectations. I’m glad you realized that, and thank you so much for the wise words!

As a manager, how do you manage an overwhelming load of tasks while keeping good relationships with many stakeholders (your staff, other managers, c-levels…)?

Recently, I’ve been working with a coach, and one of the things she helped me identify is ensuring that I have enough time to prepare for meetings. So while sometimes the workload can be overwhelming, it can be more important to either delegate work to others or just make it clear that I’m not going to have time to do it, than to try to do it and only do a mediocre job at it.

Do you have any bad habits that you’re trying to break? 

One of the bad habits I’m trying to break is to stop eating sweets. Right now, I have a habit set up for that in Habitify, that I check when I don’t eat sweets - but it’s better to set up a positive habit and do that as a replacement, rather than just eliminate the bad habit. But I haven’t figured out the right positive replacement habit in this case… yet.

What are the habits that you formed during the time working at Intel?

The main habits that have allowed me to be successful at work - beyond my meditation practice - are reading a diverse set of materials. So I’ve set up my daily Wall Street Journal habit to better understand industry and world trends, a 5 times a week habit of reading Harvard Business Review to become a better manager and leader, and another  5 times a week habit to read something else on personal development, whether it be leadership, communication, productivity or another useful topic.

Which books/podcasts/blogs would you suggest for starters who want to start habit tracking and/or improve productivity?

For books, besides the Power of Habit, I highly recommend Deep Work by Cal Newport, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and nearly anything by Simon Sinek or Chip and Dan Heath. For Podcasts, I recommend the Tim Ferriss show. Some of the episodes are less related to productivity, but I find that nearly all of his podcasts have something I can put into practice to grow as a person.