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: Megan Rice, 31, works late every night as a health care consultant in Madison, Wisconsin, managing 65 people. She brings work home. She thinks about work when she’s not working, so she’s always distracted around her husband, which makes them both feel terrible. “He says, ‘I don’t feel like you’re home when you’re home,’” Rice said.

She has no idea how to get a handle on the sheer volume of work that comes at her, fast-paced with tight deadlines, nor how to master her perfectionism and fear of failure.

“I’m very passionate about what I do,” she said. “But I would like to break the habit of working long hours. I wouldn’t consider myself an efficient worker. I’ve lived my whole life being an over-achiever who has put work before other more important priorities. I’d like to have a family one day, and I fear if I don’t cut down my time at work, I’ll carry bad habits into parenthood and not make time for my children.”

THE TIMEHACKS: Rice worked with coach and stress reduction expert Melissa Heisler, of It’s My Life in Arlington Heights, Ill. Heisler suggested four timehacks:

1. CLEAR YOUR HEAD: Rice not only had a lot of data and information at work coming at her at all times, when she wasn’t working, she was also constantly listening to podcasts or music, filling her head with more and more information. That left her feeling distracted. Heisler suggested creating “gray” space of no new information to clear her head. She proposed Rice walk or bike to work and let her mind wander. Or listen to a guided meditation to get out of her head, into the moment and just breathe.

2. STRUCTURE THE DAY: Rice was constantly interrupted at work. She incessantly checked her emails, texts and instant messages and responded immediately. “The amount of work has made her a reactionary firefighter instead of being in control of her day and her work,” Heisler said.

Heisler suggested that Rice begin everyday with a short, 15 minute meeting with an assistant to plan the day together, outlining what they want to work on, checking them off as they go, and serving as accountability partners for each other to keep them on task. “Having a plan,” Heiser said, “will give Rice’s day structure so she’s not always in reactionary mode.”

[Related: Do these exercises for two minutes a day and you’ll immediately feel happier, researchers say]

Heisler also proposed she check her emails and texts once every 90 minutes, and set aside a block of time, not just to look at them, but to touch once: Do, Delegate, Delete or Schedule a reminder, rather than leaving them in the inbox indefinitely and losing track of them.

She suggested Rice schedule time to work on big projects, so they wouldn’t back up to the deadline because of all the daily interruptions and be done in a rush, and to let co-workers know the times she would and wouldn’t be available, again to minimize disruptions. And she suggested Rice start taking breaks and going to lunch to replenish her energy and help refocus her on the big goals of the day.

3. BREATHE: As someone who’s always struggled with anxiety, Rice noticed that she was so stressed out every day, that her stomach was always clenched and she took short sips of breath without realizing it. Heisler suggested just taking a moment every now and then to take a deep breath. That can shift the brain out of feeling under threat in fight or flight mode, and help not only calm Rice down but, enable her to think more clearly and get more done.

4. GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF: “Megan’s biggest challenge is her sense of responsibility toward her job, clients, consultants, and her husband,” Heisler said. “Putting other’s needs and happiness above hers will hold her back from completely releasing her stress.” She suggested Rice fill out a worksheet called I Am More Than My Job.

[Related: When three’s not the charm: How to avert the higher risk of divorce when baby comes along]

DAY 21: Rice was actually on vacation with her husband and trying to unplug from the office for the first time in years when we caught up with her. She had spent a lot of time making transition and back-up plans before taking off, realizing that she needed to learn to trust the people who work for her to take over, and that she could turn the phone off.

“I realize that I feel addicted to work, and with a click of my phone, I can reopen that door to all the tasks I’m responsible for and all the people who need me at work,” she said. “It’s taking a lot of discipline not to do that.”

She’s making small steps. She and her assistant plan the day everyday, and she’s getting better about keeping to a schedule and minimizing interruptions. She tries to check her email and text only when she’s in a position to answer them. She sends herself reminders to work on big projects along the way, rather than just note the due date on her calendar. She’s been walking to work listening to a guided meditation, or just letting her thoughts roam.

And she’s been catching herself when her anxiety rises, her stomach clenches and her breathing is shallow and has been taking a few deep breaths. “That has certainly helped.”

Colleagues are noticing a change. “After two weeks working with Melissa, people started to say, ‘You seem more centered,” Rice said. “I felt I was listening more, rather than frantically jumping from one thing to the next. I feel like I’ve been able to differentiate between what’s critical and high priority, and the things that can wait.”

[Related: How a ‘workaholic robot’ finally found time to play – and how you can, too]

She’s still not home everyday by 5:30 or 6 like she’d hoped, but she meets with a church group every other week, “and I haven’t been late for that in a long time!” And she’s signed up to play Ultimate Frisbee twice a week as an incentive to get out of the office on time.

“I’ve been a workaholic, and that kind of stress that doesn’t go away overnight,” she said. “But having some of those commitments in my life has helped me not stay at work all the time.”

She’s spending more time in her garden in the early mornings, picking raspberries and eating her cereal before her day gets started – and she’s no longer feeling guilty about it, like she had. “I’m realizing that I need time to myself, and that it’s OK that I have other commitments and priorities outside of work,” she said.

She no longer checks her email in bed, isn’t constantly answering work calls at home, and is making an effort to leave work at the office. She has been consistently making it home on time for date night with her husband – the one thing that she hadn’t been reserving time for.

“My husband recognizes that I’ve come home earlier and been more present, and that I’m not talking about work as much,” she said. “We’re listening to each other more. That’s all been good. I feel I’m closer to the kind of lifestyle I’m aiming for, one with more balance, and that’s very encouraging.”

Melissa Heisler’s TOP TIME HACK: “Give it time. Finding new ways to approach your work day may take some trial and error. Be patient. Try new things for a few days and see what worked and what didn’t, then make adjustments and try that for a few more days. Eventually you will find the right system for you and begin making it your new way of working.”

 

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