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“How Anyone Can Build Habits” with Dr. Tom Ingegno

Here’s a controversial tip: try supplementing with Adaptogens or Nootropics. In general, adaptogens are herb, mushrooms, and other compounds that help people deal with stress. Nootropics are compounds, both natural and pharmaceutical, explicitly taken to increase various aspects of your cognitive function. Some supplements can help with memory, focus, and processing. While I would strongly suggest speaking […]

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Here’s a controversial tip: try supplementing with Adaptogens or Nootropics. In general, adaptogens are herb, mushrooms, and other compounds that help people deal with stress. Nootropics are compounds, both natural and pharmaceutical, explicitly taken to increase various aspects of your cognitive function. Some supplements can help with memory, focus, and processing. While I would strongly suggest speaking with a health care practitioner who is well-versed in their safe use, you can find an abundance of information on credible health websites on these compounds.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tom Ingegno, Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, Integrative Therapies Specialist.

Dr. Tom Ingegno, has over 20 years of experience in the integrative and functional medicine space. He owns and operates Charm City Integrative Health, a multifaceted clinic that NYT bestseller and futurist David Houle called the “Future of Medicine.” This clinic provides a multidimensional approach to reducing inflammation, improving circulation, and regulating the immune system to help people recover and stay healthy. Dr. Tom has taught and lectured at two prestigious schools for East Asian Medicine, is a published author, and helped expand the scope for the practice of acupuncture with his role as chairman of the Maryland State Board of Acupuncture. He served as director of a chain of wellness centers in the mid-Atlantic developing treatment protocols and managing a team of practitioners. Dr. Tom has been featured in both consumer and professional media spreading his message of health using modern research, traditional practices, and humor to make complex theories and treatments understandable. His professional passion is to help patients, and like-minded practitioners develop no-nonsense techniques to allow people to thrive.

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 was fortunate enough to grow up in a multigenerational household. Not only did I have the support of my parents, but my paternal grandparents and great grandmother. As the saying goes, it takes a village, and I was blessed to have one. They always encouraged my love of science and desire to help people. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how I ended up in healthcare.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My grandfather probably was the driving force behind that. He was a pharmacist and owned a pharmacy in Carle Place, Long Island. I was always amazed at the connection he had with people in that community. Many would come to him first for his healthcare advice. When I was a teenager, I would help stock shelves and clean the pharmacy. One day I remember he was counting pills for a patient who didn’t have health insurance. It must have been in the early nineties. He said, “These pills cost $5 apiece, and he has to take three a day for the foreseeable future.” The patient was a day laborer, and that was a massive chunk of his income. He looked at me and said, “There has to be a better way; I’m leaving it up to you to find it.”

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Just one person? I’ve always had an army of support from family, friends, colleagues, and even patients. If I did have to choose one person, it would be my acupuncture mentor, Peter Yates. Peter has claimed over 80 different addresses in 12 countries, the bulk of them in Asia, studying acupuncture and East Asian Medicine with masters from China and Japan. I met him early on in my schooling and was immediately intimidated by him. I felt like he had it out for me. Any class I had with him, he constantly corrected my technique. At the same time, I admired his skill and knowledge. One day, I remember looking over at another student who was just, I hate to say, very unskilled at a specific acupuncture technique. Peter looked at this student, turned, walked right over to me, and the fellow student who was my practice patient. He began to correct my technique, not brutally, but it still put me into a bit of a panic.

I couldn’t believe he was “picking on” me while the student right beside me was making their patient writhe in pain. He looked at my partner, not me, and said, “In Japan, the teacher only corrects those who get something right. Then he walked over to another student. After that, while he still intimidated me, but I began to follow him around. He organized a small group of like-minded students, trained us in martial arts, and set up an organization to bring senior practitioners. He shared all his knowledge and passion with us. He was the driving force for me to advance my skill and keep me digging deeper into this unique form of medicine.

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?

There have been so many mistakes over my career. I try and learn from all of them. I also have to be coy about this because many of my humorous ones involve patients, and I don’t want to embarrass them. However, I am fine embarrassing myself, so here we go:

I’ve been doing cupping therapy since I was a student, which is over 20 years. Most acupuncturists use a fire cupping technique where we have a small torch soaked in rubbing alcohol to burn the oxygen out of the cups to create the vacuum, which is essential for the treatment. During the 2016 Olympics, when Baltimore’s hometown hero, Michael Phelps, appeared on the starting block with the telltale red circles all over his body. After his first event, a local news station showed up to film me performing it on one of their reporters. The segment got me a lot of patients requesting cupping. I was incredibly rushed one day and quickly lit the torch right after soaking it in alcohol. The problem was that for a couple of seconds, excess alcohol drips off. Since I rushed to light the torch, I now had had drops of fire falling, and one fell into the garbage can, which was filled with tissues. It was surprising how quickly the flames grew. I was fortunate that the patient was face down. I was also lucky to have a garbage can wide enough to fit my foot in to stomp out the flames. Nothing gives prospective patients confidence in their practitioner like nearly burning down the clinic! I learned that even when you’re busy, you need to be mindful and don’t rush.

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?

Yeah, the answers to that question could fill a book. I wouldn’t recommend anyone follow exactly in my footsteps. I’ve thought about hosting a continuing education class for newer acupuncturists about avoiding the mistakes I’ve made over the last 20 years. If people are genuinely interested in East Asian Medicine or Integrative Medicine, I would think heavily about why they want to go down this path. There are plenty of right answers to why, but looking at those reasons will help you figure out everything from your business plan to who you are looking to serve. My “why” is to help people, but someone else’s may be to educate or solve a problem. The why’s may be similar but can have a very different interpretation when carried into action.

This thought process allows someone to follow a similar trajectory. Still, it provides for a more personal, authentic experience. I believe it will make someone more successful than creating a carbon copy of someone’s business.

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?

I read a ton of books, articles, and journals. Picking one is tough. Since you have part of my origin story, I’ll tell you about a book that started me going in the direction of East Asian Medicine. Opening the Dragon Gate: The Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard by Chen Kaiguo was one of the many books that got me to where I am. It is a biography about the rigorous traditional training in Taoism filled with events that seem almost supernatural. I can’t tell you if the circumstances that transpired in the book happened or not. However, it certainly kicked off my interest in Asian philosophy, which is front and center in East Asian Medicine. How I “found” the book was indeed serendipitous. I was in my sophomore year of college, and when I was home for winter break, it just so happened to be on the top of a pile of books in my parents’ basement that had been donated for an auction that my mother used to help run for my old high school. It felt like someone left it for me. The reading experience, combined with my “pre-med” mindset when I returned to school, really shifted the direction of my career plans.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

There is an Okinawan saying, “Isha hanbun, Yuta hanbun,” which directly translated means “Half doctor, Half Shaman.” when we translate it into English, we often say, “ When seeking advice for a problem, seek both the advice of a doctor and a shaman.” This phrase considers that while we are physical beings with genuine physical problems, we are also spiritual/conscious beings and need to include that into who we are and how we approach life. I try to use this approach in and out of the clinic.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

COVID-19 shifted the game for every business owner, and healthcare is no different. I’ve had to think about helping people feel their best without the need to come to the office. We are currently following all protocols to keep our clinic safe, but we do have patients who still aren’t ready to come in. This, combined with the fact that even without a pandemic, I can only treat so many people, made me start thinking about what I can do to help people where they are. I have been convinced by a buddy of mine to enter the podcast game, I know it’s a crowded space, but I think people might like to hear practical advice on optimizing their health at home. I see many influencers citing studies using equipment that is out of the price range for the average person. All of that is great, but how can someone without training in reading studies or access to expensive equipment incorporate that into their personal lives. I hope that this medium will allow me to spin off into practical classes, seminars, and even prepackaged products that people can take advantage of in the privacy of their own homes. I’m also working with several practitioners who are looking to set up similar centers like mine. I’m hoping that all of these avenues can lead to helping as many people as I possibly can.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so essential to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Habits are what we do by default. They can be good or bad, but we are the ones who program ourselves to do them. It’s essential to create good habits because it sets us up to master a task or skill. I had a martial arts teacher who would say there are no advanced skills, just simple ones practiced to perfection. When we get into the habit of doing something, we develop skills. When I look at senior practitioners, everything flows and looks effortless. They practiced the basics with so much frequency that it all becomes a habit rather than an intellectual exercise.

Good habits also beget more good habits. When we rewire our brains to perform our pattern and experience the ease, we have more to grow and develop more positive habits. We can continue to stack positive habits to improve our work life, social life, and home life.

Habits are also what we fall back on when we are stressed out. If we are a smoker, which is a harmful habit, guess when we are likely to increase the number of cigarettes we consume. When we are stressed. We can also use this in a positive sense. If we develop fitness or mediation practices, which may be harder to create than a smoking habit, we can help mitigate stress. If a good habit is established, we will seek it to comfort ourselves to deal with stressors.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

I relocated to Baltimore about five years after graduating from acupuncture school. I was having a challenging time getting my clinic off the ground. I was doing everything I could to get in front of prospective patients, including advertising and lecturing anywhere that would let me. Something was off and not clicking. I called my mentor and told him I didn’t feel right and that, for some reason, I didn’t feel settled into Baltimore. He asked one question, “Are you training?” For years he had trained me in martial arts and meditation. Every Sunday, regardless of rain, snow, or heat, a small group of his students would spend three tortuous hours training martial arts. I hated it. But, it was a positive habit that impacted my physical and mental being. Having moved and not feeling obligated to training without external influence, I had put on weight and just felt off mentally. He found me a school that trained similarly, and I enrolled. In a short matter of time, not only was I training regularly, but my practice began to fill up. While I am no longer practicing martial arts, I am lifting weights regularly, and I have a daily meditation practice, both of which help in all aspects of my life. These habits have helped me expand and grow my practice four times over my career.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

There are many good ways to develop positive habits and stop negative ones.

Here are the basics of building good habits:

  • Start small– Break down the habit into a manageable unit. If you want to meditate 20 minutes a day, start at 2 minutes. If you jump into 20, your legs will hurt, your mind will worry about how long you’ve been there, you’ll get frustrated, and then you’ll quit before you even get started. Build slowly, adding a minute or two a week.
  • Whenever possible, have a scheduled time for your habit. If you plan time in your day for it around existing routines, you’re more likely to execute it.
  • Be gentle with yourself! New habits take time to develop, and you may mess up while trying to make them stick. You may feel bad, but guilt will not make it better. Acknowledge that you stumbled, look to see if there was a reason you can correct. If there is, fix that first. If there isn’t, forgive yourself and start again.

To stop bad habits:

  • Cut back before cutting out. Trying to stop “cold turkey” will end in frustration and guilt. I suggested using small steps to build healthy habits, do the same thing to eliminate them. When you are at the top of a ladder, it’s much safer to climb back down instead of jumping.
  • Avoid related routines. If the habit you’re trying to eliminate happens during a particular time or activity, change the time or event itself. If you always smoke while walking to work, try a different route. If you always push your least favorite tasks to the side of your desk and let them pile up, put them front and center and knock one off at a time while alternating with more enjoyable tasks.
  • I’m going to repeat this one, be gentle with yourself! Beating yourself up for dropping the ball or holding yourself to unachievable standards will not help you break habits. Forgive yourself and try again.

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.

It’s important to understand that Wellness, Performance, and Focus are interrelated. Making advances in any of these areas will inevitably improve the others as well. My answers to these next few questions will significantly overlap, but this is an overwhelmingly positive crossover effect.

This one will impact every other aspect we’re discussing and can lead to many positive changes. Meditate. Developing a meditation practice impacts all aspects of your physical, mental, and emotional health. I used to joke that I’ve been trying to meditate since 1994. No meditation session will be the same. Bad sessions can help develop the pattern and give you insight into the stressors holding you back. My mentor’s meditation teacher used to say in his broken English, “You might be meditate; that’s the most important thing.” He taught several Qi Gong sets, breathing and movement exercises to cultivate health but would always defer to meditation if a student said they didn’t have enough time or couldn’t remember the routines. Meditation will not only have a profound impact on your overall wellness but will set the stage for better performance and focus.

Studies also seem to show that developing a gratitude practice can improve your view of the world. To keep it simple and not do a deep dive into the neurobiology around this, our brains are wired for survival. In today’s relatively safe modern world, we still perceive new information as a threat. We are so hardwired for this that for every new piece of good news we hear, we take in NINE pieces of negative news. To make things worse,

the news and advertising companies know this too well, and it’s reflected in how they write ads and headlines. By counting a few things daily that you are grateful for, you start to calm that survival instinct and feel more safe and secure. These don’t have to be life-changing things. Statements like, “I am grateful for the cat sitting in my lap,” or “…this warm cup of coffee,” tell your brain that you’re ok. COVID-19 has affected everyone globally, and my wife was no exception. She noticed that she was experiencing more anxiety than usual and started saying just three things she was grateful for every morning before getting out of bed. Within a short time, she’s been able to tamp down those anxious thoughts and help her deal with this unprecedented level of stress.

I’d also put a big emphasis on sleep. It sounds so basic, but rest is essential to your overall wellbeing. While not everyone may need eight hours a night, many of us aren’t getting the quality of sleep we need. Good sleep impacts everything from brain function to hormone levels, and without a good sleep routine, mild health concerns can become far worse. Just a little over ten years ago, I went to my GP for a check-up. It turns out my blood pressure, which was always textbook, was high, I had put on weight, and generally didn’t feel great. Since my maternal grandfather had died at an early age of a heart attack, I was terrified of following in his footsteps. The PA taking care of me took the time to ask me all about my lifestyle and home life. To be honest, it reminded me more of my East Asian Medicine practitioner colleagues than the typical 7 minutes per patient western practices. She uncovered that my child was a horrible sleeper with relative ease and that my wife and I both were grossly under-rested. Eventually, my wife and I worked out a schedule to let one of us get some sleep while the other took care of our daughter. Ultimately, we managed to get a good night’s rest and noticed my blood pressure and weight coming down.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Everything comes down to scheduling. If you schedule a time for your meditation, gratitude practice, and bedtime and waking up, you’ll see that it gets easier. We often say things like, “I don’t have time for that,” when we don’t want to do these things. If we have them planned out, magically, they fit. Meditation and gratitude practice can take as little as a few minutes and can be done back to back. You’re probably going to go to bed and wake up with some kind of schedule already, so why not develop a routine?

There are so many apps to track and formalize these habits. You can download a bunch and see which ones work best for you. If you’re monitoring sleep, meditation, and gratitude practices, you’ll be able to correlate how these routines impact your life. Being able to get feedback should help fuel the drive to make these habits stick.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

I’m going to sound like a broken record here. Meditate! Meditation helps reset the autonomic nervous system, regulating fight or flight (sympathetic) vs. rest and digest (parasympathetic). If we can stay relaxed, not sleepy and tired, but relaxed and focused, our performance will improve. Our minds will not feel the stress of performing, and we can process information coming in and respond better.

I also suggest using a Pomodoro timer for increased work performancePomodoro is Italian for tomato, and the technique’s name comes from the fact that the inventor of the method used a tomato shape kitchen timer.You don’t need a special timer; your phone or any other timer will work too. Setting a timer for 20–25 focused minutes to attack a task will help you achieve results. Looking at a giant project can make you drag your feet or hesitate because it seems to have too many parts. Pick one part of the project, turn off your phone, remove any other distractions, set the timer, and get to work. When the timer goes off, take a break. You’ll find that it’s easier to focus in short chunks, especially when you know you get a break.

This last habit is going to have an impact on both work and physical activity. Build recovery into your schedule! Whether your job is mentally taxing or going hard at the gym, your body and mind need time to recover. Recovery can be as simple as a good night’s sleep, but therapeutic services are often necessary for health, not a luxury. You also don’t have to be injured or ill to see positive effects.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

The beauty of these ideas is that they can work into your particular lifestyle and needs. I’ve already talked about being gentle with yourself and scheduling wellness practices. These performance practices are no different. Depending on your individual stress level, workload, training schedule, and amount of time you have, your needs may change regularly. It is essential to follow the need for changes.

Ideally, you would meditate every day, but it’s even more essential to employ these strategies during busy times. They will keep you focused and help you stay up and running. When you start to see the value of these practices, you will reinforce the habit, and you will be more likely to stick to it. When beginning the Pomodoro method, it may be hard to settle in, or you may feel that 25 minutes is too short or long. Within a short amount of time, you may find that it’s easier for your mind to prepare for 25 minutes of focused work when it knows it will get a break after.

When I work with people preparing for a marathon, they usually follow a training program. Many of them using running as a form of meditation, and that’s great. Programs typically have them running three times a week, with one longer run and two relatively shorter runs. We plan on scheduling recovery services like acupuncture, cupping, cryotherapy, or massage, after their long runs. Hard training is when they need it most. If their training changes, their recovery changes

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

I could mention meditation again, but why beat a dead horse. Let’s start with something simple. Removing distractions is critical. Whatever the task, make sure your workspace has what you need to complete said mission and nothing else. Put your phone on silent, and if it’s too tempting, block notifications and websites that may distract you. It would be better to use the same space each time, so there are no new stimuli to distract you. Tell your family not to disturb you for a certain period unless there’s an emergency.

I would also recommend planned breaks that allow you to download from the effort. Even if you love what you do and are crushing your goals, you can still burn out. Using the Pomodoro method, you will have to regularly schedule a short break and make sure you’re doing something completely unrelated to the project you’re currently working on. More importantly, schedule lengthy breaks after completing significant projects. You need downtime to recharge. Time-off can be cutting out of work early, a personal day, an enjoyable weekend, or an extended vacation. We have this idea that the more time we are at work, the more we will get done. It’s just not the case. If we use productivity as a loose measure of focus, we see that we are far more productive when we are well-rested and relaxed. Use this rest time to your advantage.

Here’s a controversial tip: try supplementing with Adaptogens or Nootropics. In general, adaptogens are herb, mushrooms, and other compounds that help people deal with stress. Nootropics are compounds, both natural and pharmaceutical, explicitly taken to increase various aspects of your cognitive function. Some supplements can help with memory, focus, and processing. While I would strongly suggest speaking with a health care practitioner who is well-versed in their safe use, you can find an abundance of information on credible health websites on these compounds.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

I talked earlier about a daily routine. While that can help people incorporate individual practices in your daily schedule, these focus tips may have a slightly broader scope. Sure breaks between daily tasks can be throughout the day, but more extended vacations require planning. Having a vacation or a day trip on your calendar will give you something to look forward to and help keep you focused on the end goal.

Removing distractions may require you to rearrange your living or workspace. Think of it as a focus-driven shift to make your environment more productive.

Adaptogens and nootropics all need to be appropriately used, and while some are good for long-term use, many are appropriate only when you need more focus for that specific event or task.

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?

I guess it’s a good time to mention that Steven Kotlar is one of my favorite authors. He writes about future technologies and quite a bit about flow state. Kotlar takes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow states and makes it very accessible for people to understand. There are some actionable steps people can take to enter flow states. We need to find something that we enjoy, but it should be slightly more complicated than our current skill set. It can’t be so complicated that we can’t complete it, but Kotlar points to something about 4% more complicated than our skill level. This challenge then isn’t seen as impossible but offers enough novelty to keep us drawn into the task. Another important detail is that we need to remove distractions. Once we get into a flow, distractions knock us out, and it takes longer to return to the task at hand. My wife is a certified Montessori teacher, and the Montessori method focuses on three-hour work cycles for all ages. It seems that this amount of time allows us to drop into a flow, complete a goal, and then come out of it. I strongly suggest that if someone has a big project to break it into three-hour chunks and split into twenty-five minute Pomodoro cycles if needed. This way, you have time to settle in and get to work. If you’re in flow, it will feel like that time flew by.

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.

I’m going to aim high here and talk about promoting compassion. 2020 hasn’t been great for so many reasons. I think we see a polarization among people. We fail to realize that all of us, to some extent, are suffering. It’s part of the human condition. If we were to cultivate more compassion, we would see that “Us and Them” is an illusion. We are all here on one planet, and thanks to rapidly advancing technologies, that planet gets smaller and smaller. We are beginning to see that what happens to others affects us. If we genuinely took better care of each other, we could be better custodians of the planet and be able to solve many of the complex problems that seem impossible.

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 🙂

This is the hardest question you have asked me. I don’t get star-struck, and I have been fortunate enough to meet several people I admire. I’ve always been intrigued by the nature of consciousness. We all have it, but where does it come from. East Asian Medicine does not put it in the physical brain, which makes sense to me, It’s who we are, but oddly non-local to the body. It impacts our health and can propel us to make significant scientific advancements, but it also contains our emotions and beliefs, which are not always rational. Previously I used the Okinawan phrase, “Half Doctor, Half Shaman,” so I feel like I’d have to go with a celebrity who meets that criteria. Deepak Chopra sounds like a banal answer, but having read a fair amount of his work and the fact that he’s a medical doctor who has not removed his spirituality in the name of science, he may point me in the right direction at least.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m going to list my social media below. I’m more active on some than others, but people can check out my clinic’s site at https://charmcityintegrative.com or email me at [email protected] with specific questions or work with me.

Here are other ways to connect:

Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/CharmCityIntegrativeHealthBaltimore

Twitter:

Instagram:

https://www.instagram.com/ccintegrative/

Linkedin

Personal: https://www.linkedin.com/in/baltimoreacupuncture/

Clinic: https://www.linkedin.com/company/charm-city-integrative-health/

Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/CharmCityIntegrative

Medium:

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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