Over the last year I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about my future, dissecting probably every possible career arc for a software engineer. Along the way I’ve consumed countless articles on everything from technical guides on specific software practices to business advice for executives, and for the most part I’ve been perpetually pensive on the subject, even at home.
A few months ago I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review: If you Aspire to be a Great Leader, Be Present. The gist of the article is best summarized by a few sentences near the top:
He let himself become preoccupied with other activities or let his mind drift to other things. And, most of all, he’d listen to his inner voice when someone was talking. Because of his lack of presence, people felt unheard and frustrated.
– Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, Harvard Business Review
Of course, I was reading that article with a mind to gain some tips on becoming a better leader and employee, but those words hit me hard on my own faults as a father. Ironically, even though I’ve been trying to figure out an optimal career path to best support my family, I’ve let the musing of such constantly distract me from being present at home.
I imagine there are many other men and women out there in a similar position: we’re extremely driven to pursue a highly valued career to support the ultimate goal of providing the best possible life for our families. We shouldn’t, however, let the drive to provide a good life for our families get in the way of being present in that life! So, here are some tips I’ve cobbled together which can hopefully be employed to eliminate that sad irony in your life.
Finish each day at work in “complete” state
Before you leave the office, you should tie up every loose end. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to finish the tasks, but you should never leave them in a pending state. If you haven’t sent that email to Joe yet, write a note reminding you to do it first thing in the morning. If you are a software engineer like me and have not quite finished your code, commit it to a private code branch, and save it remotely with notes about the last thing you were thinking before you left.
If you do leave any thing in a pending state, then you will be thinking about it until you get back to the office in the morning. Likely, this could also mean opening up your computer at home and just knocking it out so that it will keep from bugging you.
Offload career contemplations
When I keep musings to myself it’s as if some sort of mental pressure is building that slowly reduces my ability to focus on anything else. I’ve found that writing about those thoughts, or talking about them to my wife has helped tremendously to reduce that pressure.
If you’re in a similar position, I highly recommend offloading your thoughts to someone else - it could be an anonymous audience like your blog, or a personal one like your spouse. If your thoughts are of the particularly career-focused kind, then perhaps you could bring together a group of mentors and regularly bounce ideas off of them. The key here is to make sure you aren’t building up a mental pressure without ever releasing it.
Use your commute as decompression time
When I was working remotely I found it extremely difficult to be present as a father, especially during the hours immediately before and after work — there was no physical boundary between work and home. Now that I have a somewhat long commute, I’ve been able to use that time to mentally decompress after my work day, so that I’m present as a dad when I open the door.
If you are working remotely, then I highly recommend coming up with some sort of decompression strategy to act as a virtual commute. Whatever you decide, know it’s incredibly important to mentally power down after work and prepare to be a parent/spouse when the time comes.
The hardest addiction for many of us is that of constant connection in the form of our phones. The temptation to just sit down on the couch and consume information to the detriment of our families has always been strong. There are so many things I’m thinking about during the day and when work is over I just want to sit down and read about all of them!
But my family wants me to play with them, to be there with them. I’ve been trying to get better at this, but it’s quite honestly a vice. I’ve had the most success when I set hard rules like never taking my phone in with my to a restaurant, or leaving it on the night-stand when I get home. This will be a work in progress for me for a while to come, and I suspect many of you will also be in a similar situation — but I’m confident that I can slowly erode my bad habits and eliminate the things that distract me from being present.
There is no simple recipe
As with anything worth doing, there is not some simple act that will instantly and forever change how you mentally hold yourself as a spouse and parent: you have to work at it. But I believe that if you take to heart the tips above you can become more present for your family. Step one, of course, is realizing that you need to be more present, and to do anything at all to focus your mental energies to the subjects that really matter when you get home.