When Barack Obama became President of the United States, he made a decision. Every night, he would return to the White House to sit down at 6.30pm for dinner with his wife and daughters.
Obama declared those family dinners to be “sacrosanct”, refusing to miss them more than twice a week. “My staff knows that it pretty much takes a national emergency to keep me away from that dinner table,” he explained.
As leader of the free world, Obama had a fairly insane to-do list (1. Defuse nuclear situation in Iran. 2. Find Osama bin Laden etc…) But here’s the thing: the crazier your schedule, the more vital it is to take active measures to stop work bleeding into your family time.
“It’s so important to work out what your boundaries are,” says Dr Sarah Cotton, an organisational psychologist with a PhD in work-stress. “It’s about getting out of automatic pilot to start making more conscious choices.”
Use these tactics to regain control of your work life and become a more engaged dad.
1. Set Your Non-Negotiables
When John Howard was Prime Minister, he insisted on squeezing in a 40-minute walk every morning. His track-suited perambulations could take him around Kirribilli, a remote outback town or through the heart of bustling foreign capital.
Those walks were a immovable part of Howard’s day and you need to lock down your priorities. “We’re flooded with so many demands and deliverables in the workspace – it’s 24/7,” Dr Cotton said. “What are you going to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to? What are your non-negotiables?”
Everyone’s priorities will be different. Some dads’ non-negotiables might be getting home for bath-time three nights a week. For others, it will be about always attending your kids’ football matches or never missing their birthdays.
“It comes down to working out: what is most important for me?” Dr Cotton says. “Once you’ve done that, then you can make your decisions more intentional.”
2. Establish Some Transition Rituals
It’s easy to bring your work stress home with you. To leave it at the office, you need to find personal rituals and routines to help shift your headspace into dad mode.
“How do you switch off from one role and switch onto another role?” Dr Cotton asks. “What can you do to make that more intentional?”
Your switch-off routine could be watering the plants in your office, listening to music on your commute home, or pulling over in the car before you get home to write a to-do list for the next day. “It’s about finding a ritual to help you transition well,” Cotton says.
This ritual will gradually train your brain that you’re putting a full-stop on your working day. Or even just a semi-colon if you’re finishing that report once the kids are asleep.
3. Move Beyond Intentions
“We all want to be ‘present’ at home,” Dr Cotton says. “We want our kids to feel ‘I’m glad dad is home’, rather than feeling like an inconvenience.”
Sadly, our actions can tell a different story, particularly if we return from work irritable or distracted.
To close the gap between your intentions and behaviour, Dr Cotton suggests reflecting on the most effective way to emotionally connect with your kids. She cites Dr Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages that explores the different ways you can best show love for different people.
“So my son, for example, loves a cuddle,” Dr Cotton says. “Whereas my daughter would rather that I played a game with her.”
If you need some pointers to figure out you best approach, try this online quiz: here.
4. Knowledge is Power
A recent report from the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows that men rarely change their working hours when they become dads with only one in three working flexible hours. But if you don’t stay informed about what’s on offer then you might be missing a trick.
Find out about your organisation’s parental leave and flexible work policies. The government also has a range of resources designed to support you at this tricky stage in life.
“It’s about making sure that you’re aware of the resources and options and support and making use of the new solutions in the modern age of work,” Dr Cotton says.
5. Put some fuel in your tank
“Many fathers are so committed to their family that it comes at the detriment of their own life,” Dr Cotton says. “But if dads want to be able to show up then they have to have something in the tank. Don’t underestimate father fatigue.”
Sure, a degree of sacrifice is part of the deal as a dad. But if you want a sustainable family life don’t neglect your extracurricular needs. Carve out some time for “whatever feeds you”, Dr Cotton says. It could be hitting the gym, organising a catch-up with old mates, playing golf or kicking back on the couch for a Netflix marathon.
Taking some time to recharge will not only prevent burn-out, it’ll ultimately help you show up as a more engaged dad.
“Libby Trickett, the swimmer who had post-natal depression said it best,” Dr Cotton says. “‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’.”
Dr Sarah Cotton is the co-founder of Transitioning Well