Working from home sounds like a very simple concept. But there are a lot of built-in structures and boundaries inherent in a going-to-the-office job that we often take for granted. Recreating those boundaries when our home and work is one and the same is a crucial part of achieving a work-life balance.
The personal battle
One common trap of working from home is allowing your personal life to bleed into your work. A lack of discipline and motivation as well as a myriad of temptations lurking in every corner of your home can affect your productivity big time. This is the most obvious situation (and the one most often addressed) when considering the pitfalls of working from home. But there is a lot of support and feedback (in fact an entire industry) for this problem, and can be remedied by a host of productivity tools and exercises.
The work battle
However, the other trap, the one that is less easily recognized, is allowing your work to bleed into your personal life. Now, I realize that this doesn’t apply to everyone. I work with two partners who are both single guys who sleep too little and work too much. But they enjoy their work and are motivated by it. I don’t suggest that they take more “me” time. If they ever start to get burnt out, their balance can be restored by simply taking a week off or watching a season of 24 in one sitting.
When I talk about needing work-life balance, particularly when you work at home, I’m referring to those who have personal relationships that are a part of the home – be it spouse, children and/or partner. Compromising these relationships in the name of your work is easy, and often completely unintentional, but damaging nevertheless. The following tips are the things that made it possible to live my entrepreneurial dream and keep a happy home at the same time.
These tips are often used to help productivity, but in case you’ve ignored them because you have no problems with productivity, these things will also help you create an on/off switch for “work mode.” Your body is amazingly attuned to your environment and habits. Sleep experts will tell you not to work in bed so your body will be able to identify the bed with rest. Keeping simple routines will help your body tell the difference between work time and home time. When you don’t have something like a commute to and from work, you need to create other cues to help your mind and body ramp up for and then wind down from work.
1. Get dressed. Yes, this is one of the biggest luxuries of working from home. It’s beautiful to be able to walk from the bedroom to the office in my PJs to turn on the computer, walk downstairs with bed hair to make coffee, and make it for a conference call before brushing my teeth. But it’s important to cue your body and mind to take off “home” and put on “work.” Then, when you get out of your work clothes, you might be better able to get out of your work mode, too. You don’t need to get into your best suit and tie – wear something comfortable, but at least suitable for the UPS guy to see you in (admittedly, the UPS guy has caught me in bed hair and bunny slippers on more than one occasion).
2. Create a work space. Don’t work in bed. Don’t work on the couch. Get a grown up chair and table that’s only used for your work. Find a space that you can get peace, quiet, and privacy. Get the supplies and equipment that you need to be efficient and comfortable. Make the space separate and different from the rest of your house (try painting the room a different color). If you can create a boundary for your work space, you will also be setting up a home space by default. If you’re taking your laptop all around the house to work, your family will feel that no place is safe from your work. At the same time, don’t allow your family to take over your office space, either. It should be clutter free (or in my case, only cluttered with work stuff).
3. Display family photos. Do you have a photo of your family in your home office? I find it very interesting when people don’t consider it for their home office, yet most offices and cubicles are littered with photos of family and friends. When you are physically away, it seems of utmost importance to have that reminder at your desk of your life away from work. When there is little physical distinction between your home life and work life, you might start to think you don’t really have a life away from work. Put some photos at your desk so you are reminded how lucky you are that you can give your kids a hug and a kiss right now…and go ahead and actually do it.
4. Set office hours. It doesn’t have to resemble normal business hours. It can start at 2am and end at noon. It can be in 2 hour blocks with 1 hour breaks to attend to the kids. It can change on a daily basis. But having a schedule with your set office hours will let your family know when you’re working and when you’re available for them. This will also ensure that you schedule in your family every day, too. It’s hard to believe, but if you don’t, you may forget. Take advantage of your flexible schedule to take a few hours off to bring the kids to the beach on a weekday, when it’s less crowded. Make a to do list with your family, so you can plan and look forward to hanging out with them as much as your conference calls and deadlines.
5. Don’t do chores while you work. Set parameters around doing personal tasks during the day. There are a lot of errands and chores that we have to take care of when running a household. If it isn’t a trip to the grocery store it’s laundry that needs to be done. If it isn’t dishes to be put away it’s the garden that needs tending. The beauty of working from home is that you are less restricted by when you need to do those things. But if you take work time to do home stuff, you’ll just as easily take home time to do work stuff. Like I pointed out above, it’s perfectly fine to work for two hours and then take a one hour break to clean the house, if that’s the schedule you’ve decided on. Just make sure that you’re not jumping back and forth haphazardly.
6. Keep hydrated. You might not even notice that you’re thirsty, but before you know it you’ve gone six hours straight on no food or water. If you don’t take care of your health while you work, you won’t fully be present when you’re with your family. All of a sudden you’ll realize how exhausted you are, and will fall asleep during movie night. Also, drinking water will force you to get up and at least walk to the bathroom, so you’re not literally glued to your chair for hours.
7. Take breaks. Schedule in break times . You can schedule them at a certain time or after a certain task, but it’s important that you schedule them. It gets you into the habit of stopping work. If you just take a break whenever you feel like it, you’ll find that you won’t feel like it too often. But if you take your specified breaks, the idea of letting work go at the end of the day won’t be so hard. For example I will be sure to catch Oprah every day. You’ll learn that work will still be there when you get back, and that it’s okay to stop working to do something less “important.”
8. Go outside. In the confines of your small home office, it’s difficult to see beyond your work. Make sure to get some real world time every day, even if it’s just to stand out on your porch for 10 minutes. Walk, get some sun, smell the fresh air. There’s no better way to quickly get some perspective. There’s a lot of life to live. Remember what and who you’re working so hard for, and make sure you don’t miss any of it.
9. File. It’s amazing how much paperwork and just stuff can pile up in your office. Unlike a regular office environment where there might be an abundance of file cabinets and administrative assistants to take care of menial tasks like filing, you have to do it yourself (or hire someone). Either way, make sure you take care of it, and during your office hours, please. If it gets out of hand, you’ll be tempted to use off office hours (because you’re too busy during) to tidy up…time that is supposed to be for your family.
10. Have a trigger for winding down. Most 9-5ers are eagerly watching the clock at the end of the day. They know they have to start finishing things up for the day by a certain time so they can get out of there. They are prepared to do what they can, and get back to it, tomorrow. For those who work from home, though, this is an extremely difficult thing to do. The computer is always within reach. It’s always possible to get back to work and get more things done. If you have an office you need to leave, the only option you have at home is to spend that time with your family. But when your work is at home, it’s always in competition. Do I watch Lost with my husband or work on that project?
It shouldn’t be an option though. You need to develop cues to help you wind down and let the work go…until tomorrow. Decide on a time every day to close out your email. Write up notes on things to do tomorrow and plan out your next day. These are things that will help you leave work for the next day. Also, by making a to do list and preparing for the next day, it will remove any guilt you might feel about stopping work, even though you are still able to work.
Flexibility is your greatest ally
The reason I love to work from home is that it gives me the freedom to be flexible with my time. I hated that I was forced to be at my desk every day for a specific duration for no good reason, really. So putting aside all these rules, parameters, schedules and boundaries that you have to have in order to keep you from working nonstop and ignoring your family completely, the biggest advantage you have is that you can be flexible. Use that. It’s easy to move things around without affecting your work. We often forget that making time is actually an option. If the car breaks down or the pipes explode, we have no other choice than to drop what we’re doing and make the time to fix it. We do this without even thinking. But we rarely consider making time for the small things in life, because it’s easier to just put it off. We can always make time. It’s just a matter of whether we really want to.
Lynn Truong is the co-author of 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget, a book filled with savvy personal finance and career tips. Lynn is giving away 5 Flip Cams to 5 lucky readers who buy the book today. Anyone who buys the book can also get a $15 bonus from Ebates.com, where you earn 3-10% cash back from over 1,000 retailers.
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