Fatherhood 2: Back in the Habit

No Whoopi Goldbergs were harmed in the writing of this newsletter

The New Fatherhood explores the existential questions facing modern fathers, bringing together the diverse community of forward-thinking dads who are asking them. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. My aim is to make this one of the best emails that you get each week. Welcome to the 298(!) new subscribers since last week. If you’re not signed up, join 1,643 dads (and curious mums) here:

A few weeks ago, I asked "what are you reading?" A few of you left comments I should've expected: "You have time to read?" asked one. "I haven't picked up a book and read for a really long time. I need to find a way," said another.

It got me thinking about the power of habits. How important it is to maintain good ones. How bad ones can slowly wear us down—coastal erosion, made human. So this week I'm going to dive deeper into the habits. To help me, I'm going to be liberally quoting James Clear. He's got a fantastic newsletter that you might already read and wrote a phenomenal book on habit formation (that is chock-full of practical strategies for integrating them into your life.)

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
James Clear, Atomic Habits

Record scratchFreeze frame. San Francisco, 2018. "Yup, that's me. You might be wondering how I got into this situation..." Looking back at that period of my life, I wasn’t quite aware of how many bad habits had taken root in my life. Half a dozen coffees a day wasn't out of the norm (oh Philz, how I miss your delicious Tesora.) Scrolling through social feeds in 10 minute bites, rather than reading something more substantial. Eating my feelings with whatever sugary things I could get my hands on. Stressful days at work led to boozy evenings, starting with a beer or two after work, leading to a couple of gin and tonics at home. Too tired to cook, and defaulting yet again to the ever-present Postmates app. Broken sleep, self-medicating myself to bed via a little blue Eaze bag arriving at the door.

In June that year we left SF, took a sabbatical, and jumped on a plane to Japan. The change of scene proved to be a perfect way to reset. Eating salads and sushi, and walking miles every day. Waking up in sunrise land every day, sitting outside, reading a book in the shadow of a 60 foot high Gundam robot. I read 53 books that year: bliss. A few weeks later we headed to Bali, and quickly realised how easy it is to live a life of good habits there. We tag-teamed each morning: one of us would spend it with our daughter, and the other would go for a 90 minute yoga session. The next morning we'd swap. Getting up, having a few glasses of water or freshly made juice, before eventually succumbing to the caffeine fix. Eating the most delicious, Instagram-friendly vegan food you’d ever experienced. After slowing down, and not constantly leaning on bad habits to manage the stress of the life left behind, I lost 13kg in 6 months. I was transformed—on the outside, at least. The internal change would take a little while longer to come together.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Goals are good for setting a direction. Systems are best for making progress”
James Clear, Atomic Habits

As 2018 came to a close, with a second baby imminent, and a need to start returning to reality, we were eager to keep up the good habits. So rather than a 90 minute yoga class every other day, we changed to a 30 minute YouTube session a few times a week. We had decided that we were going to start a new life in Barcelona, so I started 15 minutes a day learning Spanish on Duolingo and Language Transfer.

Looking for ways to nudge me into maintaining these good habits, I came across Streaks. You pick 6 things that you're trying to do more (or less), and you mark them as "done" every day to create ongoing daily streaks. The app is a simple cocktail: two parts Jerry Seinfeld's productivity calendar, one part Feltron Report. (I think Nicholas Feltron had a child in the last few years. I wonder if he kept it up? “Nappies changed: 1,845. Hours of sleep lost: incalculable.”)

The 6 things I track have evolved over the years I've been using the app, but today sits as:

  • Fill Activity Rings on Apple Watch (Daily)

  • Read 15 minutes of a book (Daily)

  • Spanish for at least 15 minutes (Daily)

  • Meditate 15 minutes (Daily)

  • 30 minutes exercise (3 times a week)

  • Write for an hour (3 times a week)

I previously had "don't drink" for 3 days a week. This ended up being counterproductive. Because if I met a friend for lunch, and had a beer, then I'd instantly write that day off, telling myself "oh well this is just one of the drinking days now" and proceed to carry on putting them away for the rest of the day. The busy mind can always find a loophole.

What was important was that it wasn’t just tracking for the sake of tracking, that it was was contributing towards something important: my physical and mental well-being. Because if I’m not right, I’ll pass on whatever is wrong to those closest to me. Something else I learned (which took a little longer) was to be kind on myself when I didn’t get all of them done. It's a carrot, not a stick. A gentle nudge toward the good habits I want create, the “votes for the person I want to become”, slowly moving towards a better version of myself. Little by little, inch by inch.

“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.” 
James Clear, Atomic Habits

One of Atomic Habits’ key arguments is that (more often than not) change isn't a huge thing that happens instantly. It's a process of pruning, sprouting, and ongoing care, focused around the idea continuous improvement. How many of us have tried to make a monumental change in our life overnight, only to see if completely fall apart soon after? It's one of the reasons I don't do New Year's Resolutions. But with continuous improvement, it's all about small gains. Getting just 1% better at something every day will lead you to be 37 times better at it by the end of the year. And who wouldn’t want to be 37 times better at something?

I've had some version of this essay rattling around in my Notes app since last Summer. It previously ended "Everything in moderation, including moderation itself. I'm not giving up coffee, alcohol, or (god forbid) video games." And, coming back to this essay almost a year later, this story has an interesting epilogue (for me, at least.)

I watched Palm Springs back in November. It's good fun, Groundhog Day meets The Wedding Crashers, with a scene-stealing performance from a psychopathic J. K. Simmons. In the movie, Andy Samberg is stuck looping inside the wedding day of a friend. We quickly realise that, just like Bill Murray wooing a reticent Andy McDowell, he's learning what he needs to do to make the day as close to ideal as he can. I watched this 6 months into the pandemic, as life was taking on a very Groundhog Day feel of it's own. I went to bed thinking about what he was doing in the movie: every day, he was making choices that would make the next day a little bit better. An incremental, cumulative progress towards a perfect day. Wasn’t that a great goal to aim towards? And during a quiet moment the next day, when I would've normally sat down to play video games for thirty minutes, I asked myself: "is this decision going to make tomorrow a better day for me, or anyone around me?"

That was the last time I played a video game. And probably the moment where The New Fatherhood was born.

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3 things to read this week

  • A little follow-up to this week's essay is The 7 Mistakes You're Making In The Morning That Ruin Your Productivity. These articles always make me laugh as they're so oblivious to the plight of parents. IMO, the number one mistake should be "thinking that you'll ever have a productive morning as a parent ever again." But there are some good insights to glean around prioritising calm and prepping the night before that should prove useful even to the busiest of us.

  • I loved this article around the conflicting emotions of the stay-at-home dad. Open, honest and vulnerable, exactly the way we like to do things around here. "A man should provide for his family. It’s a narrow notion of masculinity that I don’t even believe in, and yet can’t fully break free from. It’s an internal voice that quickly gets visceral. It hits me in the gut. It radiates out from my torso like a wound, sometimes twisting the tension in my neck into a migraine headache, sometimes bringing me to tears, sometimes both. How do I rise above that? And if there is a shared shame among us fathers who are now doing the hidden work that women have been doing for centuries, how do we silence the dangerous voices we harbor, the ones that tell us we’re not enough of whatever it is that we think we need to be?"

  • Finally for those of you who've been here for more than a week: in a nice little bit of fanfare for The New Fatherhood, I was profiled for Substack's "What to Read" newsletter. They said I am "redefining fatherhood", which is quite lovely. But as I said last week, I like to think we're redefining it together as we go down, not up.

Lets talk about sex, baby

Every subscriber to this newsletter gets a welcome email, and in it I ask a question: tell me what you want to talk about. At least once a week, someone asks a variation of "can you talk about sex, and the role that parenthood plays in it?" And everytime I respond: "Yes, dammit, because this is incredibly important, but I feel a little out of my depth talking about it."

So you can imagine my excitement seeing an email pop up in my inbox this week from Erin Chen. Erin is a trained sexual therapist, with a Masters in Sexual Health Counselling from the University of Sydney. She's a TEDx speaker on the subject of sexual intelligence, about to launch an app to help couples rekindle their sex life after kids, and working on an academic study on the impact the pandemic has had on the emotional and sexual well-being of couples with kids. Erin is doing all of this while raising one kid, with another one the way (I'm exhausted just writing this!)

In short, she knows a lot more about this than me. And when she came across The New Fatherhood, and saw a group of men being honest and vulnerable with one another, she instantly wanted to get involved, kindly offering her services to the community.

So here's what we're going to do.

  1. The academic study is being run with the University of Lisbon, and has so far received a lot of responses from mums, but very few dads. It takes 7 minutes to complete, it's completely anonymous and confidential, and (having taken it already myself) contains a set of questions that you might not have asked yourself. Take the survey here and you'll get a goody bag at the end which contains (amongst other things) a link to book a free 20 minute "Ask me anything" session with Erin over Zoom. 7 minutes of your time in exchange for 20 minutes of Erin’s? Sounds like a deal to me.

  2. We're also going to try something new here, and see how it goes. I've set up a page (the button below) where you can anonymously ask any questions you might have about sex and fatherhood. Erin will answer these and we will feature them in a future newsletter. It's kinda like a "Ask Erin" sex advice column. Based on the emails you've sent me in private, how vocal you all normally are, and the fact that it’s totally anonymous, I’m hoping there'll be a few good ones. If you think you’d like some advice but aren't sure of the question you want to ask, take the survey first, and I promise you'll have something you want to ask by the end of it.

Ask Erin a Question

Good Dadvice

One thing to watch with the kids this week

Padme is learning about animals at school this week, and keeps coming back with great facts. This week she told me how you can tell the difference between mammals and fish in the sea (mammals’ tails move up and down and are mainly horizontal, whilst a fish’s tail moves side to side and have therefore evolved to be vertical. Watching your kids get to the point where they're now teaching you trivia? Wonderful.

Previously on The New Fatherhood

Last week I wanted to know "what does success means to you?" Another set of insightful responses, and impossible to pick just three.

  • "I’ve come to learn that ‘making it’ is different for everyone. Primarily being dictated by where you come from, what your upbringing was like, and what your story is. I’m going to try and instil similar values into my daughter. Help her to choose her life goals consciously. It doesn’t really matter what they are, as long as she chooses and makes an intentional effort to achieve them I know she’ll be okay." Kervs

  • "Success it not having to worry about tomorrow, and a relaxed mind to enjoy today." Paul

  • "Success, to me, is creating something and sharing it. If I can do that with writing, music, and even with building something with my hands along side my sons, or creating a great dinner, a great moment, a memorable experience. This is success. Building great relationships by creating something shared." David

  • "Every time I play with my son it does immediately make me feel like I've done something good with my life, and the older he gets the happier I am moving time from me and my career to investing it with him. Investing sounds cold, but it's an unconscious thing and that's what it is, it's investing time to have a really good relationship with him. If that means I'm not going to climb the ladder to the top of a big company then I'm fine with that—actually “relieved” is the word." Mark

  • "For me, what I think of success is having physical health + exactly what I've described above—at a certain point, unless you have super-expensive tastes, what is success for, anyway? I heard Dana Carvey say once in an interview that "fame is good for one thing: meeting women. But when you're a happily married man, why do you even need it?" I think a similar thing could be said about career success—once you reach a certain point, you can easily make a fault of a virtue." Terrell

  • "Being able to say "no" as much as a two year old." Nalden

Fucking hell, you're a smart and interesting bunch of people. I couldn't be happier to hang out here with you all.

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Branding by Selman Design. Illustrations by Tony Johnson. Tony’s work is always great, but he truly knocked it out of the park this week. Go back up and look at the illustration again now you’ve read the essay. Loads of tiny details. SO GOOD! Bodhi is 2 tomorrow and it's such a cliche but I can't believe it has happened so fast. He's walking around the house singing "HAPPY TO YOU". Today is also my 3 year anniversary of my last day working at Google. I don't know who needs to read this but walking away from a full-time cushty job was the best career move of my life. Thanks to everyone who shared this newsletter, with a special thank you to Anjali who told me "I ask most dads I know to subscribe!" That's the spirit. More of this please!