Aidan, Founder of TMFC
Becoming a new dad can be an exciting and overwhelming experience. Suddenly, you have a tiny human relying on you for everything, and you may feel a bit lost as you adjust to your new role. I remember that feeling, it dawns on you, very quickly you’re out of your depth and if you’re not careful it can run away from you. The pressure is relentless, sleep deprived and balancing work and the early pressures of fatherhood you’re often left scrambling for answers.
If left unchecked, it can get the better of you as you desperately search for that all important balance. After my own struggles I wanted to find something that worked for me. I was tired of not having a routine or set of habits that worked in my favour. I know my partner was desperate to adjust too but her instinct as a mother had kicked in and to all intense and purposes, she was a lot peace with the role she was born to play.
I of course had hit rock bottom, on the verge of tapping out I had to try something different. It’s been an eventful journey and I’ve tested many things. It started with a book: James Clear’s Atomic Habits.
I found it to be insightful, clear, and set out a simple set of strategies and principles that I, as a new father could use to my advantage. In my humble opinion it’s a must read for any new dad. I genuinely believe it can help you have a better impact on your kids.
Atomic Habits is all about making small, consistent changes that can have a big impact over time. As a new dad, you may feel like you need to make significant changes to be a good father, that’s in part because you’re thrust into it and for the most part under prepared for the seismic shift in your lifestyle.
Clear argues that small habits and actions are more effective than massive, big bang change and the changes I made were very much geared to consistent, step by step changes. By focusing on small habits and consistently practicing them, you can create a ripple effect of positive change in your life and in the lives of those around you, this is especially important when your partner is home looking after the little one every day.
I know you’ll have been out all day and, in that environment, where you’re under pressure to deliver day in and day out, when you get home, you just want to put your feet up and unwind. For some that escape can be found in the company of your little person, that warm embrace, smile, and laughter. The problem is, it’s not always that warm, fuzzy image you’re faced with when you get back. In most cases it’s utter chaos and in my experience with two boys now aged 3 and 6 that very much the case! That chaos leaves you little time to decompress and escape and we both know you need to take over when you get in, So, she needs to decompress, and you do too. Therein lies the conflict.
For me it was about creating time and space for me. That allowed me to concentrate on the things I needed to get back on top of. An open and honest conversation with partner will go a long way to enabling you to feel less conflicted. If you don’t embark on the journey and get support early and encourage her to do the same, you might find yourself in a position where she thinks you’re being selfish.
I’ve pulled together some of the key lessons from Atomic Habits which I think you can follow:
One of the most important things to keep in mind as a new dad is that you don't need to make huge changes all at once. Plus, if you push too hard, you might lose momentum quickly because you’re likely going to feel overwhelmed by it all. Instead, focus on making small, sustainable changes that you can build on over time. For example, commit to focus time with the little one – That’s time when you’re clear of thought and not distracted by the TV, email, chores, or social media. That first interaction is the most important and will help you unwind. Just have in mind that you’re stepping in after a long day and whilst you’re taking baby away for a few moments, there is likely to be something else distracting your partner. So, work with her to agree the evening routine and help her find time to decompress too. The objective is to start small and increase the time spent over time until this becomes your routine or habit.
Before the pandemic I’d barrel in through the door after a 90-minute commute, race upstairs and try and get a cuddle in before bedtime. Then once our eldest was down we’d head down, try to exercise, and grab a quickly thrown together meal and then at some point we’d make it to the sofa to watch TV. Post pandemic that lifestyle is very different. Today I work exclusively from home and my partner is split between the office and home. Our routine is very different, but what remains important is mealtime, exercise, story time and a cuddle with the boys before they head to bed. The key has been making certain things non-negotiable. After struggling in the early days of fatherhood I had to make sweeping changes, but I started small.
Exercise, meditation, and writing
Two of the three I’d never done before and exercise, whilst I wasn’t particularly unhealthy, I certainly hadn’t committed to doing it regularly. Today these are the three things that are mine. These are my non-negotiables. For the record, I started small. The day I chose to make changes I shocked my body into action with a 5am wake up, crazy I know, but I need to do something to jump start my day. Then I went for a walk, I didn’t walk for long – it was just 10 minutes. I wrote a few things in a book, no real structure just wanted to get something down on paper and I mediated using a Spotify playlist. That was it – Day 1 done.
Day 1, I felt exhausted, but crucially I’d gained something – Time, that thing every working parent is searching for.
These things are my constant. The 5am wake up took a backseat whilst I played with other aspects of the routine, but it’s back now. Today I exercise first thing. Immediately after exercising I mediate, most days in my car, in the carpark outside the gym. I then get home, eat breakfast, and sit down to write. My boys are older now and Henry (My eldest) sleeps like a teenager on weekdays and Maxi (My youngest) does too. That 5am wake up gives me 2 hours to myself. The objective is simple: To be a calmer influence around my kids every morning. Not always possible, but I work at it every single day. I’m not perfect. What I am is committed to staying on track and a simple set of changes enabled me to do just that. Do I slip? From time to time, but I’ve learned to interrupt the cycle and that is something I was unable to do before. My routine works for me – It won’t work for you. You have to find the right fit, the combination that helps you remain focused on improving the lives of those you love the most.
I’ll let you into a secret: I still sit in the boy’s bedroom whilst they settle down to sleep. It’s a moment of silence that enables me to reflect on the day and catch up on any writing or editing. I used to sit and scroll endless through the sports news. Today I’m not more disciplined. I use this moment of silence to my advantage and that is why habit stacking is important. In Atomic Habits, Clear points to the importance of linking one habit to an existing one. Think about it from your perspective as a father, there are habitual things you do today, some of which benefit you and other things that benefit them. Every night I read to the boys. That’s our time to bond, and once the story is finished and we dim the lights, there is a moment where I can sit, focus on some quick win work items, like editing a video or writing a paragraph for a new blog. That’s 30 minutes where they have what they need, and I have a moment to myself. I know what you’re thinking…. you’ve got to get out of that habit, that’s incredibly unhealthy. Perhaps it is, but why change something that helps us all decompress. They sleep through the night, so for now it’s something I’ll use to my advantage. These are my moments to reflect and be grateful for what I have. Now remember, this works because I work from home, and I’ve already eaten and exercised.
Another example: I get to walk the kids to school and that walk home is free time, I use it to kill off any quick win emails and listen to a Podcast. This type of activity, like commuting is ‘dead space’ those moments where you’re free to do anything. I’m simply pointing out that the walk to school is something I do daily and therefore it’s habitual. That 30–45-minute round trip is time for me, and if the wife is working from home too, then it’s time for us to catch up.
Habit stacking simply helps you build something into your routine because you’ve linked it to something else, you’re doing. In my course (The New Dad Recharge) I focus a lot on helping you to understand the importance of ‘Dead space’ - that time in the day when you’re between tasks or doing something that requires autopilot. You see those silent moments are ‘Dead Space’ but the way I use that time, I like to think benefits us all.
Another quick fix is creating a phone drop. The moment you walk through the door, drop of the phone off and disconnect from it completely. That becomes a ritual, a moment where you mentally remove that which weighs you down and distracts you. What you link to it is up to you. My preference is immediately diving into a conversation with the wife or dropping into see the kids and grabbing 15-20 minutes connected time. This small changes also helps, if you’re all eating together to prompt others to leave the tech outside and focus on the conversation.
The cue: It’s that thing that looks like a routine moment or task, those things now become your prompt to do something just for you.
You can see I kept it simple. I started exercising and I’ve made progress every year since. I’m not super fit and I don’t need to be. I’m not tracking my gains or losses. I know I’m fitter, leaner and stronger but I still enjoy my food and a beer or two at the weekend.
I track the small things, the milestones that show me just how far I’ve come. The journals are stacking up. I’m clear writing more and what I write has improved. I tweak and change the question set and every month I set myself a small challenge to complete.
Journaling is something I would encourage you to do. It’s a personal thing, you can be creative with the process. I keep a list of things I’m grateful, I write down what I need to work on, and I reaffirm what it is I think my kids need. As a dad who struggled after the birth of our youngest, I know how it feels to have the world close in. By walking through a simple question set I can reflect on the positives and areas for improvement from the day and set out what I need to do to have a better impact tomorrow. Faced with the relentlessness nature of early fatherhood it can be easy to fall into negative behaviour and thought patterns and that’s why I write this stuff down. At times it can feel like you’re not making a difference and at other times you will experience magical moments that you won’t want to forget.
Atomic Habits provides you with a simple tracking tool that can used to log when you've spent time with your little one, read to them, or engaged in other positive habits. By doing something similar you can stay committed to your goal and importantly identify when you need to adjust. I encouraged my partner to journal throughout her pregnancy and for her it’s a keepsake, something she can use to reflect on her own journey.
Top Tip: It doesn’t have to be a fancy journal. I started off with an A5 pad. I now have specific journals that enable me to be more specific in my approach, but to start with, just grab a pen and follow James’ tool.
Atomic Habits emphasises the importance of having a clear and compelling reason behind why you want to make a change. As a new dad you don’t have too far in front of you to see it. I needed to make changes to be a better role model to my young boys and you might want something similar.
The first step is identifying the reason why you want to make the change and crystallising it. That becomes your compelling reason. You want something that will keep you motivated and focused on your goals, even when things get challenging.
Here’s an example.
I never want my boys to see that their dad gave up on life and gave up on his family because he couldn’t see a way out or way back to the light.
My boys should not have their life limited by my decision or indecision. They should never have to fight on alone, feel isolated, overwhelmed, or frustrated. They should not have to shape their own future without the support and guidance of their father. My role is to influence, impact and inspire, never hesitate, and teach them that they control their destiny.
If you’ve read some of my other work, you’ll understand where this comes from. For those that haven’t, understand this: In a place of darkness, I was faced with a choice. I chose the right path. My motivation for doing so is firmly attached to showing my kids that they can set their heart on something and can achieve it.
To engage your mind here think for a moment about what’s important to you. Once you’ve identified what it is, ask yourself why that thing is important. By uncovering a connection between what and why you can keep yourself on track and more accountable.
Every goal I set flows from that statement. That one was my first attempt. I’d reflected on a father I knew who left his son behind whilst writing that statement and how my decision could have taken my family down a very different path. I’ve since researched other methods that drill deeper into the why behind what is important to you. The clearer you make that statement I’ve found the easier it is to sit here and write this or get up at 5am and go gym.
Whatever you land on any goal you set should be specific, measurable, and achievable. If you choose to journal, then you can reflect on your progress against those goals regularly. Remember progress is reliant on a process, a series of checks and balances that help you continuously move forward. You want to direct your attention to the goals and work toward them, the statement simply reminds you to stay on track.
As parents you are in this together. Your collective approach to parenting will make or break you as a couple. The relationship that you built is now under pressure and therefore any progress you make will not only benefit you, but her too, especially if you communicate why the change is important to you.
Look she won’t buy into it unless you communicate clearly, why you’re making changes, but she also won’t buy into it if she doesn’t see you make any progress or you half arse it. I remember the look on Teri’s face on that fateful night in April 2020. I will never forget the fear in her eyes, and I will never give up in my pursuit of my goal. What I’ll never forget is the moment she caught me wrestling with my emotion in the kitchen. It was a few months later and I had my headphones in, and I was focused on the lyrics in a song. My eyes were closed, head bowed and from the outsider looking in, it looked like I was crying uncontrollably. I caught her gaze as I opened my eyes for the briefest of moments, the fear was there again. Those two moments I will carry for the rest of my days.
She must believe in you, and you must believe in yourself. Accountability can be a powerful motivator when it comes to making positive changes. She can, if you trust her, be your accountability partner, that one person who can support you and hold you accountable to your goals. However, for her to engage in the process she must understand why you’re making the change which I’m afraid might mean you need to be vulnerable and share the motivation behind making these changes, and that of course requires trust. You can engage your partner in the process by encouraging her to reflect on her own role, ask her to write down memories from the early days to help harness the power that accompanies her most important role. This not only helps her feel important, but it helps her build confidence and creates an open and honest space for you both to communicate. She might have goals too, something she’s wanted to focus on. By engaging with her about your own plans you might just encourage her to take a step back and consider the impact she too wants to have on your family. By engaging her in the process she’ll also see the effort you expend and how engaged you are in making sure your family see the best version of you.
It’s important to celebrate your successes along the way. As a dad, it's easy to get caught up in all the things you're doing wrong or could be doing better. Clear recommends celebrating each time you successfully complete your habit for the day, even if it's just a small win. That’s why journaling can be so powerful, make a note of those little wins, in my experience there is no better way to commit to the process, track your progress and stay motivated and accountable. The objective is to build positive momentum over time. I personally breakdown my goals in those I can want to achieve today, this week and this month. I then have a longer term set of goals that I can review regularly. For example, I’ve been working toward a specific target in the gym (50 pull ups) when I started, I could barely manage 5 and now I’ve hit my target I want to work toward the next one.
Clear points to a very simple idea that can help you create a habit and maintain it. You simply start by focusing on something that takes two minutes to complete. It makes the habit easy to complete and celebrate and it helps you build momentum quickly. You’ll recall I started with a 10-minute walk and made some short notes in my journal, and I’ve built up to the routine that works for me. By starting small, you can stay accountable and build momentum over time. Simon Sine, the American author also talks about the value of a small goals. He suggests that instead of setting yourself a target of 10 press-ups, you complete one and you build on that every day. Everyone is different, but the must impactful approach is taking a step at a time and building the strength over time to stay on track. Obviously, the motivation to do whatever it is you’re looking to do has to be there and that’s why understanding the why behind your need to change enables you to move forward.
Overall, the decision to make a change is entirely up to you. Whether you stick to it is simply down to you having the motivation to stay consistent. The motivation is often right there. As dads we don’t have to look far, but what we fail to do is connect to a deep enough reason. I was a mess in 2020, exhausted and submerged beneath the surface with waves crashing all around I only had two options, change, or sink beneath the surface and destroy the lives of everyone I loved, leave a hole so big that they can’t climb out.
You might not be there but if you’re closing in on the bottom, accept that it’s a long journey back, admit you need support, open up and recognise the cost of living in the darkness. They offer you so much joy, cling on like your life depended on it and start the ascent, finally take it one step at a time. If you start today, you’ll be amazed at the progress you make but most important of all you will be better placed to measure the impact you have.
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Aidan, Founder of TMFC
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