Atomic Habits of a Millennial Dad

I recently finished James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I could barely put it down and highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve themselves. Don’t expect huge changes overnight though, this book is about improving 1% at a time with habits that stick.  It’s really fascinating how James manages to put into writing what a lot of people might already be subconsciously doing.  For example, to concentrate on your work, you could adopt the habit of putting your phone or other distractions in another room. Or for exercising regularly, you could adopt the habit of changing into workout clothes immediately when you get home.

These are things that I’m sure a lot of people already do to some degree.  However, it’s another thing to actually put a framework around it. To put it in a book makes habit forming almost seem like a science that you can repeat across various verticals in your life.  For example, if you don’t already have a habit for healthy eating, you now have the framework to create one that’ll stick.

Reading his book made me want to layout a framework for myself. Ever since my wife and I found out we were pregnant, I’ve been focused on preparing myself to be a great father.

son and dad at the beach together

Why Do We Choose to Become Parents

People have kids for many reasons. Some are more altruistic and others more selfish.  Perhaps you want to carry on your family name or genes, use your kids as a retirement plan, receive unconditional love, live vicariously through them etc. However, no matter the reason, you as the adult have consciously decided to bring a new life into this world. One that will pretty much depend on you for everything for the next 18+ years. It would be incredibly selfish if you didn’t give 100% effort into being a great father/parent, regardless of your reason for having a child.

But how does one become a great father? According to Atomic Habits, achieving results start with your identity. Behavior change and new habits only stick when they are in alignment with your identity. If you don’t see yourself as being healthy person, for example, habits like eating vegetables and exercising regularly will never stick. Same goes for being a great father. It needs to be what you identify as and what you tell people you are. So I began thinking of myself as a great father.

Your identity sets the scene for the systems and habits you’ll adopt to achieve your goal. So what are the systems and behaviors of a great father?  And how does one develop the habits to ensure you exhibit these behaviors? This is something that each father needs to answer for themselves as it’s quite subjective. It’s not a simple measurement like BMI or body fat % that tells you if you’re healthy. The equivalent doesn’t exist for fatherhood. The following are simply my ideas for core values of a successful dad and some of the habits I plan on implementing. 

family of 4 sitting in a forest together

Maintain High Energy Levels by Being Healthy

Having energetic parents is something I never had growing up. I remember getting the excuse of “I’m too tired, let’s do this later” a lot, and that really kills motivation for a kid that wants to learn something new, practice a sport, or improve in some other activity. This is why I place so much value on being an energetic parent. As parents, we’ve already made the carefully planned decision to have kids, so they should never be made to feel like they’re a burden. I rarely, if ever, want to use the excuse that I’m too tired. At the very least I could fake enthusiasm for a couple of hours. Using the “I’m tired” excuse could also be a slippery slope that may lead to a bad laziness habit forming.

Here are my planned habits for maintaining good health and high energy:

  • Become a runner by clocking at least 10 km per week or the equivalent in sports (e.g. tennis, basketball, etc). The habit to enforce this is taken straight from James’ book as I’ll put on my running gear first thing in the morning on Sundays and first thing after work on Wednesdays. I’ll also prepay for tennis lessons every week so I have added motivation to attend otherwise it’s wasted money.
  • Cut out bad eating habits by following a 16/8 intermittent fasting diet. This is a habit I’ve already adopted and I have discussed some habits I use to maintain an IF diet here. These include getting rid of snacks to prevent temptation and choosing an eating window that works for me. 
  • Leave a 1L water bottle at my work desk so I cut out all sugary sodas and juices. This way I don’t get a sugar crash and drinking water is much healthier than alternatives anyway. It’s easy to keep this habit because the water is in such close proximity to where I spend most of my day. It’s the easiest thing to reach for when I’m thirsty. Changing your environment is a very powerful way to form habits.

Have a Learning and Improvement Mindset

Us dads often think we know everything and our kids may treat us like we’re a walking encyclopedia. It’s important to remember there’s a lot out there that we don’t actually know. We should always be looking for opportunities to learn new skills and never be set in our ways. If your child sees you actively reading, asking questions, and absorbing knowledge it’ll be a great influence on them. Kids are naturally very curious and it’s important to nurture this trait to encourage constant learning and self improvement. A kid who is raised by open minded and inquisitive parents will likely share those same traits.

father reading to daughter

A few habits that I’ll adopt to make myself a lifelong learner are:

  • Spend 5 hours a week reading non-fiction books on any topic. I put my e-reader next to my bed to make it easy to remember to read and keep the e-reader well stocked with new and interesting books. I find that reading 3-4 books simultaneously is a great way to not lose my reading momentum. It’s easy to get bogged down in a bad book and lose enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid to ditch a bad book if it doesn’t get you excited. We aren’t doing a book report in 5th grade, you don’t have to finish every book you start.
  • Regularly write and update this blog. I keep to a schedule of 2 posts per week, Tuesday and Friday.  I find writing about my thoughts and books I read makes me a more active and engaged reader and learner. It also forces me to form connections and look for deeper meaning in everyday life. I can really absorb the authors message and apply it to my life (like I’m doing here with Atomic Habits). It’s easy to keep this habit because I get frequent pleasure from engaging with readers’ emails and comments on this blog. Making a habit pleasurable is a great way to keep it going.
  • Read 5-6 news articles per day from at least two news publications.   For me right now it’s Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg and I do this first thing in the morning when I get to work.  It’s already a habit and keeps me updated on current affairs. As soon as I log into my computer, the websites are already open and ready for consumption. Reducing friction helps habits continue smoothly.

Be Patient with Your Children

This one’s tough for me and I’ll be the first to admit it. I often view patience or empathy as weak traits. I’ve grown up thinking that I won’t ever get what I want unless I’m assertive and forceful. This is especially true in high stress industries like finance or law. If you always have this type of mindset at work, it makes it very hard to change it up when you’re with your family and children. Those who are not aggressive (impatient) at work often get passed up for promotions and colleagues will walk all over them. I used to think the same applies to parenting. If you’re too patient with your kids they’ll take advantage and walk all over you.

mom holding newborn baby

But this simply isn’t the case and perhaps impending fatherhood has given me the maturity to realize it. You can’t expect a small child to have the same rational thought and intentions as an adult colleague. Parenting requires patience that you wouldn’t use anywhere else. If your child starts to think of you as impatient, they’ll stop coming to you for advice and confiding in you with their problems. You’ve effectively cut yourself off from ever having the opportunity to be a great father

These are the habits I plan on adopting to become a more patient father:

  • Immediately change out of work clothes when I get home. Suit, tie and shirt are what I wear to work. I associate these clothes with a highly competitive and stressful environment. If I change my clothes as soon as I’m home, it’s like a physical transformation from work mode to home mode. The act of changing clothes should remind me that I’m in a different setting and keep me in a more patient state of mind.
  • Gather myself for 2-3 seconds if I ever think I’m losing my patience. In those 2-3 seconds I’ll remind myself that children really don’t know what they’re doing. They’ve only been alive for a few months or years. Most likely what they’re doing is not malicious and just their way of exploring the world and seeing what effects their actions have. To remind myself of this, I will put blank blue post-it notes in high stress environments. In the car, kitchen, and home office are a few examples. Seeing these post-its will remind me to pause for 2-3 seconds and reflect. Blue is a soothing color and should remind me to keep my cool when I need the reminder the most.
  • Finally, when speaking with my kids I plan on taking big deep breaths, from the diaphragm. James calls this habit stacking and linking certain events with certain habits. For me it will be deep breathing when speaking with my kids. I don’t mean weird audible panting, but I’ve always felt a few deep breaths does wonders to calm and focus.

Practice What You Preach – Don’t Be a Hypocrite

One of my favorite quotes on fatherhood relates to teaching by example:

“Every father should remember one day his son will follow his example, not his advice” – Charles F. Kettering

Kids may be naive but they aren’t stupid. If you’re a hypocrite they’ll catch on sooner rather than later and they’ll start despising you for it. Imagine forcing your kid to eat vegetables while you fill up on chips and cookies. Nobody likes that guy, least of all your children.

These are the habits I’m adopting to make me more honest with my children:

  • Whenever I find there’s a need to criticize or discipline, I will think of ways my behavior has influenced what they just did. This is kind of like the pointing-and-calling method described in Atomic Habits. If my kid does something that was clearly influenced by me, such as not putting away their shoes when they get home because my shoes are laying all over the place, I will repeat a line to myself. “You didn’t [put away your shoes], maybe because dad didn’t either. Let’s [both put our shoes away together]”
  • Reverse my idea of parenting. I find that hypocritical parents often follow the mantra of “do as I say, not as I do”. Perhaps they view parenting as authoritarian by nature. It’s much easier to bark orders and discipline when you’re not being obeyed. But this is dictatorial behavior that needs to be avoided. A habit I plan on adopting to prevent authoritarian parenting is to think about dictators in history like Hitler or Pol Pot if I get into a dictating mode. This might be a bit extreme and bordering on hyperbole but I’m a bit of a history buff so it’s easy to remind myself of historical dictators if I’m starting to become one. This will make my behavior seem outrageous and I can quickly backtrack and take a different approach.
  • Get your wife to help build the habit by calling you out anytime you’re dishonest or hypocritical with your child. Your wife should know you well and giving her carte blanche to call you out on your hypocritical behavior will probably give her a lot of joy. If you know you’ll be criticized by your wife every time you’re being a hypocrite, it’s very likely you’ll start cutting down on that type of behavior. The book refers to this as getting yourself an accountability partner. 
family of three hiking through mountains in rainy weather

Working Towards Becoming a Great Father one Atomic Habit at a Time

This all probably sounds great until I’m running on 4-hours of sleep and there’s a mile long to-do list that I need to get through.   As Mike Tyson once said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”   But I think by writing down my desired identity as a great father and laying out the framework and habits to get me there, I’ve already made a huge step in the right direction.

As a self-improver, I will continue refining and adding to this list as I gain more experience as a father. It’s like a feedback loop, you try different habits and different frameworks and your kids will immediately let you know if they’re working or not. The key is to be open to change and improvement. This is basically what James Clear’s Atomic Habits is advocating for, small 1% changes that help get you to your goal. Let me know in the comments what your key parenting values are and what habits help you achieve them. 

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