Habits take time to develop and it’s very normal for habit creation to go in waves. It first begins with convincing your brain that this is important to you. When something is important to you, you’ll always find time for it. It won’t require you replacing it with something else or having less free time. It’s amazing how time just expands when you want something. Once you’ve told yourself it’s important, now set yourself up for success.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Akshay Ahooja.
Akshay Ahooja is the co-founder and CEO of Trainiac, an online personal training platform that enables users to build a habit of fitness by working one-on-one with certified trainers through their app. Akshay is obsessed with building impactful products. He’s built a career doing so as a Product Manager at Facebook, Microsoft, and now with Trainiac. Possessing the courage and energy, Ahooja launched his first business in his early years and created Trainiac. He has since grown his passion for health and well-being. Today, he is driven to provide customers nationwide with access to regular fitness routines and the support to build healthy habits. Working out regularly changed his life, and he won’t stop until everyone has access to do the same.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I’m an Indian Canadian American, born in Geneva, Switzerland; lived in India, Kuwait, grew up in Toronto, Canada for the majority of my childhood and now live in Seattle. My parents, born and brought up in India, moved around a lot; never settling for the status quo and always striving to build a better future. I attended eight schools before I completed high school. Through that journey, I got to see the world through many different lenses — as someone who fit in and as someone who didn’t, in stability and in daily uncertainty, with a humbling bank balance, and a reasonable one. I was lucky to have these diverse life experiences and drive around me growing up. I think it made starting fresh, working in ambiguity and taking calculated risks very normal for me. After high school I went to University of Toronto for Engineering, and shortly after made my way out west to Seattle for roles at Microsoft and then Facebook. Four years ago, I co-founded Trainiac with my friend from Facebook. My wife and I have now lived in Seattle for more than ten years!
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Growing up I had two passions — music and science. The two are so different yet so similar. I loved having the privilege to live in these two worlds. My guitar teacher, Mr. Biagiarelli, taught me the beauty in music and how it makes the world come together. My engineering teacher, Mr. Mercurio, and so many science teachers, instilled my curiosity in how the world works. When deciding which way I wanted to head for school, I applied to both music and engineering programs. In the end, I chose the engineering program because I was deeply curious about computers and programming.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
In my first few months on the job at Microsoft, I worked on a project that was incorrectly pushed out and cost the business a couple hundred thousand dollars before it was found and fixed a few hours later. I was sure I was going to get fired. Or maybe I’d have to work for free from now on. For some reason they allowed me to keep working, and I spent another 4 years there. I learned a lot from that experience. For one; when you put your name on something you should take it very seriously. The trust people place in you will be based on the value that you put in having your name attached to it. Also, I learned from my colleagues in the aftermath to separate the issue from the person. Search for the solution without pointing at human error. Many times it is the context or process that needs to improve to avoid issues in the future.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Check in with yourself fairly often. Ask yourself honestly — am I making progress? Am I still excited by the problem I am solving? Like, really really excited. If both of these are true, keep going and ignore the daily setbacks. If not, ask yourself again in a few days and weeks. If you’re repeatedly hearing “no” after asking yourself this several times, it’s time to make a change. But in general, I’ve found it’s really tough to see your full story while you’re in it. We tend to be pessimistic and focus on what’s not working because we want to fix everything. But you’re writing new chapters with every struggle, and as long as you’re making progress towards your end goal, why would you stop? I’m learning this myself, as I find it difficult to do in practice.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. This book really helped build perspective and zoom out. Our species as a whole, everything we have ever known, our ability to create concepts and stories, is so incredibly recent; and yet we still have such a hard time remembering and learning from our history. It helped me internalize how similar we all are, how all our challenges are not unique, and how easily our primal survival instincts can get the better of us if we don’t have awareness and education. It should be a must-read for anyone in business and politics.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill. Failure is progress. Anyone who works on a product will understand this deeply. Being able to differentiate good failure and bad failure is very important. Good failure is where you made calls based on the information at hand, learning something when it didn’t go as planned and then using it to dictate your next steps. Each good failure is actually another hill conquered.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Our mission at Trainiac is to help people build a habit of exercising. It’s the most important problem I’ve ever worked on. If you look at the past decade, health and wellness has made tremendous progress. Billions of dollars have been spent and made on an unlimited amount of fitness solutions — apps, wearables, home equipment, studios, etc. But unfortunately, we haven’t made much progress in exercising regularly. Compared to a decade ago, just a few more percent of the population exercise at least 90 minutes per week. But you need that consistency to see real health outcomes. Something clearly isn’t working, and we as a population keep getting sicker. We can’t keep throwing more options at people and expect results. We are here to change this trend and give people the tools to live healthier and happier lives. Trainiac helps you build habits of exercising by working directly with a trainer, 1-on-1, on your own time and in your own place. We’ve found having this expert guidance and accountability is the key to unlocking habit creation.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Building habits has given me control over my life. It’s helped me move away from living reactively. One quote in particular that I appreciate is “Goals without routines are wishes; routines without goals are aimless.” I’ve found that habits reveal what you value. If you wake up in the morning and start the day with meditation, you are valuing your mental health over scrolling the feed. Building good habits, many of which I’m constantly working on, are the foundation of every new thing I take on. If it’s in your routine, it becomes important to your life, and eventually becomes a part of your identity. Three important habits in my routine are: 1. Be active or mindful every morning before starting work, 2. Cook a healthy breakfast, keeping it almost the same every day, 3. Spend quality time with my wife every evening. I keep as daily rituals, and it helps me start and end the day in control and on my terms.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
Habits take time to develop and it’s very normal for habit creation to go in waves. It first begins with convincing your brain that this is important to you. When something is important to you, you’ll always find time for it. It won’t require you replacing it with something else or having less free time. It’s amazing how time just expands when you want something. Once you’ve told yourself it’s important, now set yourself up for success. Logistically, figure out how you will do this every day in a way that cuts down on your inertia. Let’s say you want to read 10 pages of a book every night. Have your book picked out and ready, kept on your nightstand, bookmarked, with a lamp. Small details matter. Then, give yourself a trigger. Perhaps it’s getting into bed and turning on the lamp that gives you a signal that it’s time to read. Getting into the right headspace is key. And then reward yourself — once you’ve read those 10 pages, just take a moment and think about how you feel. Let your brain live in that success. For example, the feeling that you learned something, or opened a new avenue in your thinking. Finally and most importantly, don’t get crushed if you miss it a few times. Habit creation takes time, and it’s most likely going to be two steps forward and one step back. That’s normal; just keep doing it.
Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.
I’ll focus on routinely exercising since this helps with all three: wellness, performance, and focus. I, and many others, have found that when you exercise regularly everything else just falls into place. You start to be more mindful of what you’re eating. You think clearer so you’re making better decisions. You’re happier and more energized so your relationships improve. Your schedule becomes predictable so you build better habits. The reward of exercising regularly spans in so many dimensions of your life.
As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Getting into Flow is similar to building habits. It’s about building triggers in your brain that signal you’re about to get into Flow. Each person will have their own triggers, but next time you are in Flow, pay really close attention to how you’re feeling. That will help you deconstruct the optimal environment for you — where you’re sitting, what you did before this, what time it is and what you hear around you. For me, I need to first see enough open time on my calendar. If I know something is coming up in 20 minutes, it is very hard to get into Flow. I need a clear outcome I’m working towards. I need music, and I need it loud. Finally, I need to feel excited about what I’m about to do. Starting is the hardest part, so I imagine the end state first, that helps me get started.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Build a habit of exercising 3 or more times each week. We need to move away from thinking about exercising as an aesthetic tool to lose weight or build big muscles. Exercise is medicine, and it’s amongst the most important things you can do for your health. It’s as, if not more, important than any healthcare service you prescribe too. It sounds so simple yet most people never develop this habit. It’s everyone’s own super power. Why not give yourself the best version that you can be?
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Mark Cuban — he’s incredibly effective with his time. There’s a lot to learn from not only his success and work ethic, but also his work efficiency.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Currently, all my focus is devoted to Trainiac and our mission to help people exercise regularly. To follow me, follow Trainiac.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.