Janna Cawrse Esarey in her home office, a.k.a. The Dollhouse Room, with her daughters. (Graeme Esarey)

Want to find time for your most important life goals? In our new feature, Timehacker, we match readers with the right coach to help them find that time, develop new habits and get started. Then we check in on Day 21 to see how it’s working out.

THE SUBJECT: Janna Cawrse Esarey, 43, published her first book, the bestselling travel memoir, “Motion of the Ocean,” in 2009. Since then, the Seattle author has tried to work but, with a mother newly diagnosed with cancer, two kids and housework, she soon found herself drowning in what social scientists call the “role overload” of too many competing demands.

She was good about setting aside time from 5 to 7 a.m. to devote to writing. “But I have not set good limits on making sure I’m focused on my work versus handling the insurance, the birthday invitations, all the creep from household and child care,” she said. “I get so stressed out by all the stuff there is to do I can’t concentrate.”

THE GOAL: Janna now wants to find time to write a book proposal for a new memoir. “About a year ago, I pulled out my childhood dollhouse from storage to give to my school age daughters, and I saw that the Mamma doll had lost her head. It was rolling around at the bottom of the box. I thought, ‘Oh my Gosh, that is exactly how I felt the first five years or so of motherhood,’” she said. “I haven’t wanted to write about motherhood, because it’s so clichéd, or so many people are doing it. But I just felt like, I needed to figure out what happened to me, and, dare I say, what went wrong.”

“I think there’s a lot of social science pushing society to change both work and family practice and governmental policies,” she added. “And I want to add my voice to that.”

Sign up for the 21-day Timehack Project!

THE TIMEHACK: Janna worked with coach Melissa Heisler. Heisler suggested five time hacks:

TO GO FORWARD, FIRST STEP BACK: Janna was having a hard time getting started, and often felt she was spinning her wheels. Heisler asked Janna to take a step back and reflect on why it was difficult to work on the memoir. Janna realized her biggest stumbling block was fear – fear of what she’d find with a close examination of her life, fear of alienating her family and others, fear that she wasn’t good enough or that the memoir wouldn’t be.

BROADEN THE SCOPE: Janna had stacks of journals and calendars and blogs she wanted to go through to pull out stories and begin organizing her memoir. But she felt that taking time to plan, organize and research wasn’t “real” work. Heisler helped her see that it is all part of the writing process and to give herself permission to “count” that as real work.

DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT: Janna was getting hung up on ruminating about the “very best way” to move forward, but wasn’t moving forward. Heisler helped her see that simply moving forward was what counted.

GET HELP. GET OUTSIDE: Since she was drowning in household chores, Heisler coached Janna through having difficult conversations with her husband about more fairly sharing those chores, or getting outside help. She also suggested that Janna leave the house sometimes to write in a library or coffee shop, so she wouldn’t feel guilty about writing in her home office rather than doing the laundry.

ORGANIZE. PURGE. WRITE. REWRITE: On the practical front, Heisler suggested that Janna come up with a system to organize her thoughts and the project: Start a timeline. Create folders for each chapter. Purge, don’t hold back, get the whole story out, warts and all. Journal until things become clear. Write. Rewrite, keeping in mind what to give the reader instead of obsessing on her story.

PROGNOSIS: “She’s not a hopeless case,” Heisler said. “But, on the personal side, she has to work through some long-standing fears. And, on the systems side, I’ve given her some simple tools to break down a scary and overwhelming project.”

DAY 21: Janna has taken time to explore her fears and feelings of hesitancy. “What I got out of the Timehack Project was not what I expected. Instead of simply getting good tips about carving out time and creating healthy boundaries around my work, I took the time to reflect on and discuss my work in an in-depth way with Melissa. That was so needed,” Janna said. “I’ve gotten great clarity on why me, and why now, which is really central to writing any book proposal, much less any book.”

Janna is using her writing time from 5 to 7 am more productively, she said. She’s made progress creating a timeline and an outline for the memoir, and given herself permission to do, and to count as real work the “worker bee” work organizing, planning and going through old journals. She now will leave the house and its undone chores in the middle of the day when her daughters are in school to write at a library or coffee shop, turning off email and other distractions.

She’s been having “intense” conversations with her husband, and even offered to give up her writing project at one point for fear of harming the marriage. Instead, the two have agreed to find a fairer way to share the load at home.

“This whole process has reignited my passion for my writing career, which had been simmering on the backburner,” she said. “When I started the time hack, I wasn’t sure that this was doable. I was scared. I had struggled so much with writing and not having it turn out with the novel. But I’ve made progress. I’ve got a new prologue and the start of a new chapter. It feels so great to be excited about writing again.”

Melissa Heisler’s TOP TIP:

“Not moving forward is often a symptom of a larger problem. Take a few steps back and look at your life. What is working? What is not? Where is there tension, conflict or stress? Many times once some emotional issue is resolved, the work moves forward naturally.”

 

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