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“Over time, these small improvements accumulate into large benefits, Nick Allen of ‘Cutback Coach’ and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

I find thoughtful reflection to be a key process in any habit development exercise. Think ahead and set goals for yourself (and systems to achieve them), but also don’t forget to carve out time to reflect on how well you performed against these goals, or adhered to your system. Each time you reflect on what […]

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I find thoughtful reflection to be a key process in any habit development exercise. Think ahead and set goals for yourself (and systems to achieve them), but also don’t forget to carve out time to reflect on how well you performed against these goals, or adhered to your system. Each time you reflect on what went well and what you can do differently next time, you get a little better at new habit formation. Over time, these small improvements accumulate into large benefits.


As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Allen.

Nick Allen is the Founder and CEO of Cutback Coach, where he is focused on helping anyone who drinks regularly build healthier habits around their drinking. He has more than ten years’ experience in retention-focused growth spanning product development and marketing. Nick is a Silicon Valley veteran who has led business development teams for early stage and Fortune 500 companies alike. Before launching Cutback Coach, he was the director of growth and retention at Lyft where he built passenger and driver engagement growth engines from the ground up. His journey to Cutback Coach started with his lifelong dedication to mental and physical wellness.


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 grew up in an old Victorian house in the Mission District of San Francisco, and watched the neighborhood and city change dramatically through the tech booms and busts of the late nineties and 2000s. I was fortunate enough to have a pretty stable family life, in large part thanks to the fact that my parents had given up drinking entirely around the time of my birth, with the help of AA. They remain sober today, more than 30 years later.

With the city as my backyard, I lived a pretty fast-paced life in my teenage years, and began experimenting with alcohol in my early teens. I quickly found that like my parents, I too had a strong affinity for drinking, and the tendency to occasionally overdo it. Instead of trying to force me onto the same path they’d taken and restrict me from drinking at all, my parents worked with me to understand why they’d made the choices they had, and instilled in me a deep awareness around my own habits and tendencies. With their help, I made it a priority to keep my relationship with alcohol front of mind as much as possible. The lessons they taught me from their own experiences have stuck with me closely to this day.

Now, after more than 15 years of running personal experiments to keep my drinking in a healthy place, I’ve founded Cutback Coach as an outlet to share my learnings with the world. I’m excited to help change the conversation around alcohol health, and help millions build healthier habits and more mindfulness around their consumption.

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

My parents have been a huge inspiration for me throughout my life. Reflecting on my early years, I now realize the intentional decisions they made in raising me with a growth mindset, and instilling in me the belief that I can do anything I set my mind to do — as long as I’m willing to work hard for it. In addition to conquering their problematic relationship with alcohol in order to give my sister and me a more stable environment to come home to every day, my mom and dad demonstrated the entrepreneurial spirit; challenging me to solve hard problems for myself and never give up; and to think creatively to find out-of-the-box solutions to seemingly impossible situations. I attribute a lot of the entrepreneurial spirit I embody today to the early lessons they instilled in me.

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

My wife Andrea has been an unbelievable inspiration in the journey to the person I am today. While she’s always been supportive of my crazy ideas and new personal efforts at self-improvement, her spirit was perfectly epitomized in 2020 as we dealt with changing plans and a year that ended very differently than it started.

When it became clear the pandemic was going to put a big wrench in our travel plans, I was also starting to think more seriously about turning Cutback Coach from a personal side project into a new venture. Andrea pushed me to take the leap despite disappointment in not being able to see more of the world. Her support has been instrumental in building Cutback Coach into the growing business it is today, and I wouldn’t be nearly the man I am without her by my side. She pushes me to be a little bit better each and every day.

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?

During my years at Lyft I was responsible for running all of our passenger promotion programs, which meant dropping ride credit on huge swaths of riders in need of a boost to get started. The system we had in place to do this early on was incredibly powerful, but also extremely easy to screw up. At one point I errantly dropped ride credit on the entire city of Boston, completely the result of my own human error.

What I remember most about this mistake was the speed in which my peers across different departments — from engineering to communications to legal — rallied to remedy the situation, while also focusing on the best outcome for the affected customers. I learned a great lesson about teamwork in the face of unexpected crises that day, and was reminded that no matter what, the best brands put their customer comes first.

I also learned a lot about systems design and building internal tools with more protections, but that’s a story for another day.

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?

My biggest (admittedly aspirational) advice is to find a professional path that doesn’t feel like work. For me that started with choosing mission-driven companies with values that aligned with my own. But it doesn’t stop with the company. At work, find projects you can deeply immerse in, that challenge you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Focus on growth and the journey instead of some specific destination.

After much reflection on my own path, I realized that building from scratch is where I get the most personal satisfaction, which is what set me on this entrepreneurial journey.

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?

Two books, both focused on habit change, have fundamentally shaped the way I think. The first, Indistractable by Nir Eyal, taught me the value of planning and prioritization, and the specific strategy of timeboxing my most important personal and professional priorities to create clear implementation intentions to make sure my time is spent in the right areas each day and each week.

The second, Atomic Habits by James Clear, opened my eyes to the mindset of small improvements on the way to larger gains.

As I began my recent journey to build healthier habits around my drinking, these two books helped me create a structured system to help me reach my goals. They also greatly influenced the system design at the heart of the Cutback Coach program.

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

Success is not an accident, success is a choice. — Stephen Curry

First off, I’m a huge Warriors fan, and a big fan of the humility and discipline Steph brings to the court. I love this quote because it puts the outcome in your own hands, and reinforces the growth mindset that no challenge is too large, as long as you believe you can overcome it, and are willing to work to do so.

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

My focus recently has been entirely on building Cutback Coach. I’m excited by the opportunity to create a new wellness category around alcohol health, and to destigmatize the conversation around how drinking more mindfully can have a huge impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

Alcohol is a sleeping giant in our health and wellness picture, and I believe a big reason for this is that we’ve created a false binary that labels anyone who’s considering changing their relationship with alcohol an “alcoholic.” This stigma prevents people from getting the help they need. It’s time to change the dialog to one of proactive management, vs. waiting until drinking becomes a major problem in our lives before we do anything about it.

With Cutback Coach, my goal is to make tracking drinks as common as tracking calories and steps as a component of our proactive wellness routines. Similar to how you don’t need to be extremely out of shape to benefit from keeping tabs on diet and exercise, you don’t need to be a problem drinker to benefit from increased mindfulness around drinking.

With 3 out of 4 people drinking more in 2020 as a result of, well, everything, now feels like a great time for us to reexamine our relationship with alcohol, in a way that’s constructive and guilt free. I believe proactive alcohol health is the next frontier for health and wellness, and that we can create a new category here in the way that Calm and Headspace brought proactive mental health into the mainstream via mindfulness and meditation. Given alcohol’s impact on sleep, productivity, diet and anxiety/stress, it’s an extremely high leverage opportunity area to improve our overall health and wellness.

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 important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

In the words of James Clear in Atomic Habits, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Having goals without strong habits to reinforce and make progress towards them is a recipe for failure, and for short-term outcomes that fail to take hold in the long term.

Through the teachings of habit experts like Clear and Nir Eyal, to name a couple, I’ve come to realize that it’s the good habits we nurture — and the not-so-good ones we focus on breaking — that define our paths in life. My parents replaced their drinking habit with healthier activities, meetings and community involvement. It changed who they are, and shaped who I have become.

For me, building good systems around personal productivity, health and wellness, and even my relationships has helped me immensely to prioritize the most important things in my life, and to de-emphasize patterns in my behavior that distracted me from them. Especially in this increasingly distracted world, I truly believe that a relentless focus on self-improvement, by way of structured systems vs. aspirational goals, is key to personal and professional success.

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

Defined broadly, healthy habits in the workplace and at home have defined the person who I am today, and the professional trajectory I’m on.

As a starting point, I do my best to structure my week in advance around the most important priorities in my life. Each Sunday I sit down with my calendar open and reflect on the previous week, then plan for the week ahead. I block time for the work projects and personal relationships that matter most to me, and those that need the most attention now. This habit of timeboxing creates a pre-commitment to prioritize the most important things in my life, and creates a framework to avoid distraction. I have Nir Eyal’s most recent book, Indistractable, to thank for this system.

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

As mentioned earlier, I believe the key to building any new habit (or breaking a bad one), is to have a structured system in place to make the new habit feel like a natural extension of your existing routine (or to add friction to a habit you’re trying to break).

I think Cutback Coach is actually a good example of such a system. To help our members break bad habits around their drinking, we work with them to create daily goals for drink limits and dry days ahead of time, in order to give them a structured accountability plan each week. From there, it becomes a lot easier to work with them to stay on target, because we can remind them of the intention they had for themselves. Using a simple method of tracking each drink, we further create conscious interference on drinking days, helping members build mindfulness by creating an intentional pause in a previously automated routine.

These seemingly small changes to behavior can have a profound impact over time, by bringing engrained routines out of the lizard brain and into the conscious domain of thought.

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 if you can.

The 3 wellness habits I believe have the highest leverage for improving mental and physical wellbeing are 1) prioritizing sleep and sleep hygiene, 2) maintaining and cultivating relationships that stimulate and energize you, and 3) avoiding overconsumption, of both food and alcohol.

I do my best to maintain a very regular sleep schedule as much as possible. In my early 20s I’d let the weekend get the best of me, setting myself up for a week of sleep deprivation before starting the cycle again the next Friday. Now, I do my best to maintain a consistent nightly routine around winding down and getting enough sleep, which I keep on weekdays as well as weekends whenever I can.

In terms of relationships, I’ve found that a few strong friendships that truly leave me feeling inspired and appreciated far outweigh the value of maintaining many weaker connections. I try to prioritize my time with people I know will challenge and motivate me, and avoid those who leave me feeling drained.

Finally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the role that alcohol plays in my life, even today. While I still enjoy drinking a couple glasses of wine here and there, I’ve also come to recognize the impact it has on my body, especially when I overdo it. Through planning and goal setting, I’ve been able to minimize these downsides, which has contributed significantly to my feeling of overall mental and physical wellness. Even for folks who don’t drink in excess, small changes to habits here can have an incredibly large impact.

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

The thing about habits is they take a long time to develop and truly take hold, which can be really discouraging especially in the early days of building new routines. One thing that’s worked really well for me in the early stages of any self-improvement project is to find ways to measure and celebrate short-term progress towards longer term goals. As one example of this, I’ve found setting daily and weekly goals around just doing the habit (e.g. exercising), and tracking progress in a visual (like marking green X’s on a calendar), gives a sense of accomplishment even before you start feeling or seeing the physical benefits. These small dopamine hits can go a long way to keeping on track early on.

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

Three habits that have helped my performance in the workplace are 1) having a structured morning routine, 2) prioritizing and scheduling uninterrupted focus time, and 3) listening to my body and optimizing for times of higher and lower mental acuity.

By maintaining good habits around sleep hygiene, I find I can maximize my day by getting started early. I’m not saying I wake up at 5am and run 10 miles every day, but even just being out of bed and ready for the day at the same time each morning, and building a ritual around how I start the day, sets me up for success (and to avoid distraction).

I’m also a big proponent of scheduling long blocks of uninterrupted time in my week wherever I can. I find that bouncing between meetings or different tasks creates a lot of mental overhead, and context switching is really difficult. With a few hours a week dedicated to thinking or digging in on big meaty problems, I find my general satisfaction with my work (and productivity) benefit greatly.

Finally, I think it’s important to listen to the signals our bodies and minds send to us. It’s not realistic to think we’ll be at peak mental performance all day every day, and for most the cycle of alertness and lethargy is pretty regular (typically revolving around meal times from my experience). With this awareness in mind, I do my best to schedule hard, thinking tasks in times when I know I’ll have a high productive awareness, and busy work tasks that just need to get done in the times when my brain isn’t up for heavy lifting. This little practice goes a long way in maximizing the day.

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

All 3 of the habits I mentioned above really start by taking control of your schedule, and aligning your physical realities with the mental workload on your plate. My biggest piece of advice here is to be militant with your calendar. It may seem like overkill, but schedule as much as possible in advance, and align your schedule with the most important personal and professional priorities. As you get better at doing so, then layer in aligning tasks with your expected mental acuity and you’ll be on your way to much more productive days, by way of strong time management habits.

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

A lot of the same habits I’ve mentioned above contribute to optimal focus, which for me is a keystone habit in achieving peak wellness and performance. Without focus — and focus that’s directed at the right priorities — it’s very difficult to build any new habit, or achieve personal, physical or professional goals. As a starting point, work on sleep and scheduling, which provide structure to achieve optimal focus in the areas that matter most to you at any given time.

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

I find thoughtful reflection to be a key process in any habit development exercise. Think ahead and set goals for yourself (and systems to achieve them), but also don’t forget to carve out time to reflect on how well you performed against these goals, or adhered to your system. Each time you reflect on what went well and what you can do differently next time, you get a little better at new habit formation. Over time, these small improvements accumulate into large benefits.

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?

For me, flow derives directly from extended, uninterrupted time working on a project that’s mentally stimulating and a bit out of your comfort zone. My most treasured moments of flow come when I know that the thing I’m working on has an important purpose, and that I have sufficient time to dig in and do it well. There’s no better feeling.

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 truly believe that alcohol is a sleeping giant in our society, and a huge opportunity to improve our collective health and wellness. Working on Cutback Coach, with the goal of helping anyone who regularly drinks alcohol to build mindfulness around the role alcohol plays in their wellness, feels like an incredible way to make a broad positive impact. Alcohol impacts our sleep, is full of empty calories, leads to anxiety and stress, and causes billions of dollars in lost productivity each year. It’s time we start managing it proactively, the way we’ve learned to manage diet, exercise and sleep.

For many, quitting drinking entirely isn’t realistic or desirable, so instead focusing on small changes to drinking habits feels like a path to getting more people more intentional about when and how much they drink. With 70% of US adults regularly drinking and 30% categorized as excessive drinkers, this is a major opportunity to proactively improve societal wellness and productivity. It’s time we change the conversation and build a new category around proactive alcohol health. To do this, we must remove the stigma that prevents it from being a part of the wellness dialog.

So far we’ve seen really exciting results with the Cutback Coach program. Members who stick with us for 4 weeks are seeing an average of 29% reduction in weekly drinks, and a 38% reduction at week 12. It’s pretty amazing to see.

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 🙂

I’d love the chance to sit down with Phil Knight, founder of Nike. I was really inspired by his writing in Shoe Dog, and loved the founding story of how he and his team built one of the iconic brands of our generation.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

  • Blog at cutbackcoach.com/blog
  • Twitter @cutbackcoach
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