A piercing angry wail jolted me from sleep.
It hadn’t been a dream. This really was what my life had been reduced to.
I lay still, naively hoping the baby would settle himself down. Apparently, some babies do that. Urban legend has it that some babies actually sleep.
After several months of close personal study, I call bullshit on that particular myth.
In a well-rehearsed move, my lady wife’s icy foot connected firmly with my tailbone, launching me out of the nice warm bed with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. In a graceful continuation of that movement, she did the “hug and roll” to steal all the covers.
What truly demonstrated her mastery of parental survival skills was the fact she managed to perfectly execute the manoeuvre without waking up.
“Waa! Waa! WAAAAA!”
I plodded into the baby’s room, plugged his screaming mouth with a dummy, and together we headed downstairs.
Rooting for your country
At the time of the baby’s birth the government had been trying to arrest a declining birth rate. One of the political leaders of the time, Peter Costello, summarised the problem with the quote:
“You should have one for the father, one for the mother and one for the country. If you want to fix the ageing demographic, that’s what you do.”
In an attempt to incentivise prospective parents to get busy in the bedroom, the government dangled the carrot of a “baby bonus”. Every baby born earned its parents $4,000 in cash (roughly £1,600 at the time).
Anybody with the slightest inclination for strategic planning quickly worked out that it costs far more than $4,000 to raise a baby. Idiots breed however, so unsurprisingly the birth rate did increase by a statistically significant amount while the baby bonus was on offer!
My lady wife had decided that some of the baby bonus would be invested in a big screen television. One of her favourite hobbies is watching “junk food” television, and she anticipated spending a lot of time at home with the baby over the next few months.
Experience had taught me that the path to happiness does not involve disagreeing with a pregnant woman, so I merely nodded.
While stoned on industrial strength painkillers after an emergency caesarean, she refined her investment approach. She wasn’t going to get just any old television, she was going to get the biggest loudest shiniest television that $4,000 could buy!
Innate lizard brain survival skills gave me a firm metaphorical slap upside the head as I opened my mouth to question whether there was such a thing as too much television. That was much better than the physical slap upside the head I would undoubtedly have received, had I articulated that thought.
It would be a (slight) exaggeration to say we detoured via the television shop on the way home from the hospital, but a hulking great Sony flatscreen was certainly delivered within the next day or two.
A battle of wills
A glance at the clock on the DVD player revealed it was just after 01:00.
I relied mostly on muscle memory and autopilot to perform the change, feed, and burp routine.
Then we played our nightly battle of wills game.
Me trying to settle the now wide-awake baby in the travel cot.
He determined to outlast my efforts, manipulatively knowing there would be a cuddle in it for him when I eventually gave up.
Inevitably after 10 minutes of rocking the cot and playing on repeat the magic sleepy song (“Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol), which always worked in the car but seldom worked in the house, I gave up.
My sleep deprived body slumped down on the couch. The thoroughly wide awake baby snuggled up against my shoulder.
I hit the power button on the monster TV’s remote, and checked if there was any cricket on. Australia was touring the United Kingdom at the time, so the time zones worked out pretty well during the stupid o’clock feed.
For some reason the little guy found the green grass, blue sky, and dulcet tones of Ritchie Benaud soothing. More than a few mornings I had woken up at dawn to find myself still sat on the couch, with the baby asleep on my shoulder. Fortunately the television had a sleep timer!
No cricket today, so instead I put on the next episode of 24. I briefly wondered whether the baby’s first word would be “Dammit”, the signature saying of the lead character?
Dammit was his fourth word!
Toughest job in the world
A couple of months previously I had finished up my client engagement, and become a stay at home parent.
Without doubt, this was the toughest job I have ever had!
My lady wife had done an amazing job looking after the baby for the first few months, but had become depressed and was suffering from cabin fever at the lack of intellectual stimulation and adult conversation.
With varying degrees of enthusiasm, we had agreed it was time for her to return to the workforce. A scarcity of full-time nursery places meant I was literally left holding the baby!
Making a list…
While Jack Bauer was running around saving the world, I started reflecting on how my life had come to this, and puzzling out what I could do to make it more tolerable.
My list was part to-do list, part bucket list, and part achievement list.
It was the earliest version of the I will list here on the blog.
… and checking it twice
A year later, while packing up the house ahead of yet another international move, I stumbled across my list.
I read through it.
The list made for disheartening reading.
I read through it again.
I had sleepwalked through another year, without ticking off a single item on the list!
I was perpetually tired. The baby still didn’t sleep. During our regular early morning games of chicken, we had finished watching 24, then all of Lost, before eventually completing Grand Theft Auto on the Xbox (it took me six months!).
I was unhappy. Each weekend, while walking down our suburban street, I could see my future: nearly every McMansion had a balding overweight middle-aged man outside mowing the lawn or washing a shiny new car. The prospect terrified me!
I was wasting my life. Drifting.
Help yourself, nobody else will!
It occurred to me that simply making a to-do list wouldn’t magically get the list items done. This blindingly obvious realisation somehow managed to pierce the fog surrounding my sleep-deprived brain and hit home.
On client sites, I had made a good living by helping senior managers make well-informed data-driven decisions.
I decided to apply the same approach to my own life.
Healthy, wealthy and wise
Since I got my first job at age 10, I had been diligently tracking all my income and expenditures.
Unfortunately tracking and analysing are very different things!
Every couple of years a surge of interest would see me comb through my financial reports and actually hear the messages they contained.
Typically the outcome of this activity would result in my purchasing another investment property or identifying some attractive listed companies to buy shares in.
Then I would lose interest again, and resume drifting.
This time I made some changes that worked.
This time I categorised all those raw expense transactions. I then grouped those categories up into my areas of expenditure:
- Investment Expenses
I also categorised all my income transactions, grouping them by effort:
It became possible to easily see where my money came from, and where it went.
Looking at those flows, and proportions, over time highlighted trends and developing problems.
I put together a plan with the goal of eventually replacing my earned income with passive income streams generated my investments.
Today that approach has a name, Financial Independence.
It would a year before Jacob Lund Fisker wrote the first post on EarlyRetirementExtreme: “I became financially independent and was able to retire when I was 31.”
It would be another 5 years before Pete Adeney started to “type some shit into a computer” as Mr Money Moustache.
The same approach I took with my finances proved to work well in other areas of my life.
I found one of the hardest parts of being a new parent was the complete absence of free time. Exercise, eating healthily, reading and learning all quickly gave way to a relentless sleep deprived grind of changing nappies, feeding, sterilising, and making formula bottles.
As a result, I put on some weight. It is often said “having a baby is tough on your figure“… I concur!
I looked up the recommended daily calorie intake for someone my gender, age, and height.
Then I started tracking what I ate and drank in much the same way I tracked my finances.
It quickly became clear that I was grazing on snacks every time I went past the kitchen. Even more of a revelation was just how many calories there are in a bucket of wine!
Of course measuring things is easy, but acting upon that information is harder.
Working within the constraints of time and limited willpower, I changed my diet.
I started small, eliminating grazing and junk food by simply not buying them any more.
When that didn’t have the desired impact, I looked into portion sizes. It turns out the larger your plates and deeper your bowls, the bigger the portion sizes you serve up are! Funny how our brains work.
That made more of a difference, but still wasn’t going to get me back to my desired fighting weight.
I briefly considered giving up alcohol. However after a long day at home with the baby, that idea was swiftly kicked into the long grass!
Instead I started making salads for lunch instead of eating sandwiches made on white bread.
After a couple of months, I could comfortably fit into my jeans once more.
I’ll be honest: I only took up running to escape the house and the baby.
After a full day at the office my lady wife was less than keen to trade one job for another, a feeling I remember well from the time before our role reversal.
This meant my only viable option was to tempt the fates by sneaking out for an early morning run.
Strangely this was the only time of the day that the baby reliably slept for at least an hour.
Another confession: I hated running.
I started keeping track of how far I ran, and how long it took.
After a while one lap around the suburb became two. I got stronger. I got fitter. I even got (a little) faster.
This allowed me to begin to appreciate when I was coasting, the impacts of running farther or faster than normal, or of skipping consecutive days (it was raining, and I’m a wuss!).
Eventually I was talked into entering a half marathon. There is a rumour this was the result of a lost bet. I refuse to confirm or deny that scurrilous accusation!
The final area I applied this approach to was reading. I used to read a lot, getting through a paperback novel a week (showing my age here!).
Once the baby arrived my reading of books stopped.
It wasn’t that I didn’t try. Rather the problem was that getting a contiguous block of uninterrupted time proved impossible. The sleep deprivation often meant I failed to take in the little I did read, so when I returned to the book, I’d have to go back and skim earlier parts of the story before the plot made any sense.
Eventually I had admitted defeat and given up altogether.
I started making a conscious effort to read a little bit each day, mostly newspaper articles and blog posts to begin with. This got easier as the baby got older and able to concentrate on something for more than five seconds at a time.
I kept track of what I had read, in part so that I could go back and refer to it should the urge strike… but mostly to avoid reading the same thing three times while still failing to retain what the damn thing had said!
This habit stuck, and has evolved into the I Read page here on the blog.
This helps me to identify which voices are worth investing my time in.
Paint by numbers
This repeatable pattern of recording, monitoring, analysing, and acting based upon well-informed data-driven decisions has served me well in many areas of my life.
It has proved to be an effective tool, assisting to break down a big insurmountable problem into a collection of manageable bite-sized problems.
Each little problem solved helps get me closer to my ultimate goal.