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How to really work from home

Timehack # 2_ SLEEPWant 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: When Melissa Amling, 33, and her husband Chris, of Mount Prospect, Ill., started a family, she decided to be a work-from-home mom. She planned to shift her work schedule – she runs her own Web design business with Chris, who also works for an outside firm – so she could continue her job and be the primary caretaker of their son, Henry, now nearly 2 years old.

It sounded great in theory, but in practice she was coming apart at the seams. She was answering e-mails, taking business calls and working all the time, staying up until sometimes 2 a.m. to get things done, distracted and always feeling guilty — that she wasn’t with her son when she was working, and guilty that she wasn’t working when she was with her son.

“I feel like I’m missing my little guy growing up,” she said. “Even though that’s why I wanted to be a work-from-home Mom to begin with.”

THE TIMEHACKS: Amling worked with coach Melissa Heisler of It’s My Life, near Chicago. Heisler suggested five Timehacks:

1. Set A Schedule That Works for You: Melissa Amling’s days were all over the map. She typically woke early, immediately checked e-mails, and launched right into the workday, sometimes plopping Henry in front of “The Mickey Mouse Club” to do something quickly, or begging family members at the last minute to cover for her. “We had no schedule. No sense of what was coming up. It was a just a mess,” Amling said. “Henry spent a lot of time by himself.”

That, to Heisler, was the biggest timehack to tackle. “Melissa needs a schedule as does their almost two-year old son Henry,” Heisler said. “

Heisler suggested Amling set specific work hours, set specific family hours to be with Henry, and get him on a routine nap, meal and sleep schedule. She also recommended she carve out quality time for Melissa and Chris to spend together to connect as a couple.

[Related: Here’s why working mothers have more time than they think they do]

2. SLEEP: Amling was getting maybe four or five hours of sleep a night. That left her feeling exhausted and ragged during the day and made it hard to make decisions, concentrate or really play with Henry.

“Sleep calms the mind and rejuvenates the body. Sleep is a great tool to reduce stress and provide the clarity,” Heisler said. “However, when we are stressed, sleep is the last thing we seem to be able to do. Many times physical solutions (turning off electronics before bed, taking a bath, listening to guided imagery) do not help with sleep because our minds are swirling.

“To help reclaim normal sleep patterns, take charge of your thoughts – don’t let them control you,” Heisler continued. “When the mental chatter of your to-do list fills your brain at night, do not feed it. Focusing on worries and what needs to be done, only gives these thoughts more power.  Instead, have a notepad by your bed and write down all of your thoughts, releasing them from your brain onto the paper. Trust that the list will be there in the morning to work through. Nothing can be accomplished now. Then relax into the job at hand, sleeping.”

3. Create boundaries and manage expectations: Once Amling set her routine work hours, Heisler suggested Amling let her clients – and her family and friends who liked to drop by – know when she’d be concentrating on work, even adding a line in her e-mail signature with her office hours. She recommended that Amling work toward finding a high school babysitter to help with Henry for a few hours after school to better help delineate work time. And to eventually find a space, perhaps in the attic, to keep work separate from home.

“Melissa needs to learn to set expectations, create boundaries, and say no. She is very reactionary right now and is overly concerned about others’ real and perceived expectations and emergencies,” Heisler said.

4. Do ONE thing at a time: Amling was constantly multi-tasking and feeling harried, never able to focus, nor get everything done she wanted to. Heisler suggested she look at her upcoming week, or the upcoming day, and plan the next day’s goals ahead of time, so she wouldn’t keep losing sleep worrying or losing time trying to figure out which project to work on.

5. Make technology your friend: Turn off laptops and screens and don’t check emails during family time. Turn off your laptop at least an hour before bed. Manage tech distractions when doing concentrated work. Touch e-mails once. Set reminders to keep to the schedule that works for you.

[Related: The smartphone in bed: How to keep technology from ruining your relationship]

DAY 21: When I caught up with Melissa and Chris, Melissa had spent the morning playing with Henry in the garden, and the afternoon working in a concentrated chunk of time on a handful of specific work projects.

While her schedule is still a work in progress, it goes more or less like this:

8 am: Family Time: The family wakes up and gets the day going.

9 am – noon: Family Time: Chris goes off to work and Melissa Amling plans the day and plays with Henry. They go to the park or the library. They color. And she spends focused one-on-one time with him.

Noon to 1 p.m.: Family Time: Henry and Melissa meet Chris, who works five minutes away, for lunch. Family time.

1 pm to 4 or 5 p.m.: Work Time: Henry naps and Melissa works. Work time. Melissa checks her emails for the first time and responds to them right away. She plans her goals. She’s turned off notifications and minimizes interruptions so she can get to work on them right away, and focus her full attention on one thing at a time.

Evenings: Family Time. Chris comes home and helps with dinner and getting Henry to bed. Chris and Melissa spend couple time together, and try to get to bed by midnight.

Though “certainly not perfect yet,” Melissa is no longer panicked, stressed and feeling guilty all the time because she now has specific times to pay attention to what’s important. She’s actually doing better work because she’s able to focus and finish. “I always felt such a desperation to work, because I didn’t know when I was going to fit it in,” she said. “Now that I’m not feeling stressed, it’s easier to tackle any challenges that arise.”

[Related: Overwhelmed: Here are seven research-based strategies for taking charge of your life]

And she’s able to be more present when she’s with Henry, because she’s no longer worried about her clients needing her all the time.

“We’ve noticed a big difference in Henry,” she said. “He seems more content and less clingy. He was never super clingy. He’s pretty independent. But now I think he knows he’s going to get to spend all morning with me, so he’s OK with going to do his own thing when it strikes him.”

Since she’s getting more sleep, she’s not as tired, and she is spending more relaxed time with Chris in the evenings. And because she’s sleeping, he’s sleeping, too. Before, he felt he needed to stay up with her.

Though she’s still looking for a high school student to help babysit Henry some afternoons, she’s actually been able to finish projects she’s had languishing for years. “That sense of accomplishment is really nice,” she said. “Setting aside a specific time of day for me to work has allowed me to let it go and relax when I am not ‘At work,’ which lets me to be fully present when spending time with my son and husband.”

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