Want to find time for what matters? The 21 Day Timehacker Project matches readers with coaches who help them find time for their most important goals.

DAY ONE: For years, An Lu, 35, has wanted to carve out the space to develop an app that syncs across all devices designed to — and she gets the irony –save time.

But everything else has been getting in the way: First, there’s caring for her two-year-old son. Then her work as an urban education consultant, her husband, her house, her dog. Oh, and finishing her PhD dissertation and  her husband’s been battling an illness and  her grandmother just passed away. She herself is preparing for surgery. “I’m literally pulled in too many different directions,” she said.

THE TIMEHACKS: Lu worked with Nicole Coomber, a management professor at the University of Maryland who also runs Managing Motherhood, a media and consulting firm designed to help parents “manage the imperfection” and chaos better. Coomber suggested four time hacks:

1. FIGURE OUT WHO YOU ARE: Coomber had Lu take some personality tests, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and the Big Five, to figure out her strengths. Research shows that personality stays “remarkably the same” from our childhood into adulthood, stabilizing around age 30, Coomber said.

Lu tested high in the Big Five dimensions of extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, emotional stability and conscientiousness, all of which correlate to high performance and satisfaction at work. She follows through on her commitments, is emotionally tuned into people around her. “But she has a tendency to say ‘yes’ too much,” Coomber said.

(Coomber said she’s also found the Big 5 useful for determining parenting styles. “Extraverted parents are going to enjoy the social interaction with their children and other parents, for example, while parents who tend towards introversion are going to find that more difficult. …Neither way is “good” or “bad,” but knowing how you score on these dimensions makes it easier to understand where you might struggle in your parenting life.”)

2. CONQUER THE FEAR OF FINISHING BY HAVING A CLEAR VISION OF THE FUTURE: Coomber asked Lu to spend time thinking about why she was having a hard time finishing her dissertation, and finishing work on her app. “We’re often afraid of moving forward and completing things because it means our life will change,” Coomber said. “Spending some time creating a vision – what [Harvard leadership professor and author John] Kotter calls ‘a compelling vision of the future,’ will help us gain the strength to continue to move forward with the rest of the change steps.”

3. CREATE SMALL WINS: “Sometimes we get stuck in the middle of a major change in our lives and we do have a compelling vision. Creating a small win is a tried-and-true way to move forward with a big change or big project,” Coomber said.

4. DEFINE YOUR PRIORITIES: Coomber took a page from investor Warren Buffet to help Lu focus in on what really mattered to her. Coomber asked Lu to create of list of the 25 things she wants to accomplish in her lifetime. Then she had Lu circle the most important five. “I told her that she should pursue ONLY those most important five,” Coomber said. “If you focus on the other 20, they will hinder you from achieving the top five.”

DAY 21: When I caught up with Lu, she had come to a major revelation: she wasn’t making time to work on the app because she was waiting for the perfect circumstances in her life. She realized that while she may not have it “all” right now, she has enough, and maybe the app shouldn’t be such a big concern. “I realized, my life is good the way it is,” she said. “Maybe my time hack is just learning to enjoy life the way it is.”

Creating a clearer vision of the future gave Lu more clarity about what was important to her in the present.

“When Nicole asked me to make my list of the 25 things I want to accomplish in my life, I’m embarrassed to say I made a top 100 list,” Lu said. “But I began to realize that where I am in my life right now, though developing the app is something I would love to achieve, there are only 24 hours in a day. My husband, my son, my family, my research for my dissertation, they come first. Then, if I have time, I will work on the app.

“The time hack – and coping with the death of my grandmother and mentor – really helped me redefine my priorities and look at what is essential,” she added. “It helped me value being true to myself.”

So Lu has taken a leave from work to prepare for surgery, and put aside work on her dissertation and the app, in order to care for her son. “I’m comfortable where I am,” she said.

And by releasing the pressure she felt to have it all right now, she’s created space for her long-term goals in the future. Her son will go to pre-school in the fall. That’s when she’ll have more time to pick up and work in earnest on her dissertation, and the app – for which she just won a Green Dream award for having an innovative, sustainable idea.

“I always thought I’d be done with my dissertation and my app before having children. Having my son turned my world upside down, literally,” Lu said. “But now, I find the joy of having him outweighs everything else. He’s two only once. I don’t want to say, ‘I wish I’d been there more,’ when he’s 15 and have missed it all.”

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