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Can our expert help a busy mom find time to finish her memoir of her mother’s battle with cancer?

With young children and a consuming job, Erica Campbell has a tough time finishing her memoir. Photo by Erica Campbell
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Can’t seem to find the time to achieve your most important life goals? In our new feature, Timehacker, we will match readers with the right coach or consultant to help them find the time, develop new habits and get started. Then we’ll check in on Day 21 to see how it’s working out.

The Reader: Erica Campbell, 41. She has two young kids, four and 18 months. She works intense, early morning hours out of her home office in Alexandria, VA, and is about to start a demanding new job as the Head of Behavior Change in the Knowledge and Technology Department of a large organization in the UK.

The Goal: “My sole goal for 2015 is to finally finish and publish a book I’ve been working on for eight years. It’s a memoir about my mom and the dual life I tried to lead while she was dying. The main reason I want to finish it is because I want my daughter to read it someday.  I want her to know about my mom, her ‘Grandma Joan.’ I want her to know me, in case I die too young of breast cancer myself. I want to finish it because I don’t want to forget the little details about sleeping with my mom in the twin bed of the hospital and holding her hand as she passed away.”

The Challenge: Even though she starts work so early, Erica feels guilty stopping work after a full day at 2:30, and often finds herself still at her desk at 6 pm. “My mornings are insane. I need to be working as much as I can in the morning, because by 12 pm here, it’s 5 pm in the UK and my colleagues are winding down. Most mornings, I have not washed my face, brushed my teeth or even taken a shower, but I’ve been working full-time, getting the kids out of the house to go to daycare. There’s a little bit of a breath in the afternoon. I need a little break, but I feel guilty if I take one. I worry my colleagues in the UK will think I’m not doing any work. Then it’s kids again, and they are high maintenance right now, and rightly so. Then, I’m exhausted and it’s time to go to bed. And I’m about to start a new job, that’s about to be that much more demanding of my time.”

The Diagnosis: We matched Erica with productivity expert and coach, Terry Monaghan, an executive coach with Time Triage.  “Erica is not managing her energy. She’s just depleting it. She’s driven to be ‘doing something productive’ every minute of the day, which leaves no opportunity for recharging. She sometimes feels like she has to be working all the time in order to prove herself. Since there is no down time, it is no surprise there is also no writing time.”

The Time hack:

*Take a break sometime between 12-2 (after UK based clients wrap up for the day). Shower, eat – really take a break to recharge energy. No phone, no email, no computer, no work. Nothing ‘productive.’

*Schedule a specific time to write, and stick to it. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but just a specific time scheduled in the day that doesn’t interfere with the rest of life.

The Prognosis: Is this a hopeless case? “Not at all,” says Terry. “But one of Erica’s biggest stumbling blocks is the overwhelming guilt that crops up every time she doesn’t think she is getting enough done. I suggested she plan to end her workday not later than 4pm (including breaks). To do that, she will need to tackle the discipline of planning her day and following her plan.

Day 21:

Erica: After our first call, I realized that guilt was driving a lot of how I spent my time. Guilt about my flexible working pattern, guilt about not driving my kids to daycare, guilt about taking care of myself. And I realized that it’s possible I’m so busy with trying to get it all done, that I’m getting nothing done. So I’m trying to let it go.

I was very skeptical at first about taking breaks. I was like, ‘You’re kidding me, Terry.’ But when I forced myself to, I would get back to my desk with a bit more energy, whereas sometimes you feel like you’re running through mud. I still don’t shower everyday, but at least I am giving myself permission to take breaks.

I told my new team how I’m going to work from 6 to 7 am, then take care of my kids from 7 to 8. I was expecting eye rolling, but it’s working OK. And because I’ve been upfront about it from the beginning, I don’t feel as guilty.

I also engaged a professional editor, on Terry’s recommendation, and sent everything I’ve written. I’m a rule follower, so having someone to be accountable to, or having deadlines to meet is good. The minute I hit ‘Send,’ I felt very vulnerable, but relieved, like, ‘Sweet, I’m moving forward!’

Ideally, we talked about blocking the last hour of my work day for working on my memoir, from 5 to 6 pm. I probably did that twice in the past three weeks, but I hadn’t touched it in two to three months. So it’s a start. And that feels really good.

Terry: Boundaries, breaks, and letting the guilt go will be key for Erica. I suggested she ask herself what ideal she is trying to match when she feels guilty, and is that really necessary.

What has worked for you when you feel time starved and out of control? Share your tips in the comments section below.

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