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Simplify your work-at-home life

by Karen on January 23, 2012

This post will speak to a limited part of my audience, I know. But when I began working from home almost two years ago (seriously? has it been that long?), I made a lot of mistakes. It would have been nice to have some tips and advice from someone who had worked through all the challenges.

I have it much easier than many work-at-home parents. I don’t earn a full-time income. I earn money through advertising on this blog, and beginning in March, I will earn money as an adjunct instructor at the local college. Only four hours a week will be spent in the classroom; all of my class prep, grading, and other duties will be performed from home. While I can’t speak to the challenges of working full-time from home, I can share what’s worked for me when it comes to keeping work and home life separate when your home is your office.

Set boundaries.

When your desk is just a room or two away from your bed, it can be difficult to set limits on your work schedule. It’s easy to feel like you should be working all the time, and feel guilty doing anything that won’t contribute to your income. However, when you work from home, it’s more important than ever to create a schedule and stick to it. Carve out times for work, family life, household chores, and downtime.

I’m serious about the downtime.

Several months into my work-at-home career, I started to feel seriously burned out. Part of it was that I was caring for a newborn, but a lot of it was that I felt like I had to be on-call 24/7. I was checking my email day and night. I was staying up until all hours working on projects, caring for my son whenever he was awake, taking care of things around the house when he napped, and not taking a single second to just be. That kind of breakneck work schedule just isn’t sustainable, but it’s easy to fall into that kind of schedule when you work from home. Because you don’t have set “office hours,” it’s easy to feel like you have to work all the time. Be sure to schedule time off for yourself. At least a few hours a week should be spent doing something for yourself. Watch a movie. Take a walk. Get a hobby (and no, work doesn’t count as a hobby). Don’t feel like you have to be tied to your email all the time. You’ll return to your work feeling refreshed and more productive after you take a break.

Put yourself in “work mode.”

Just as it can be difficult to remember to schedule downtime for yourself, it can also be difficult to focus with home distractions. Television, kids, spouses, chores, personal phone calls, that bottle of red wine you’re supposed to be saving for the weekend but you really want to drink right now — all of these things can create distractions that make working at home challenging. The best way to combat this is to separate work from home as much as possible.

Ideally, you have some sort of space that functions as your “office.” Even if it’s just a desk in the guest room, when you sit down in your office space, you know it’s work time. Set specific “office hours” when you plan to be productive in your office space. Turn your phone on silent just like you would at the office. Turn off the television. Plan to work during a time when your children are napping, playing, attending school, or when your spouse can manage their needs. The freedom of working from home makes it easier to plan for productivity, because you can plan around your own circadian rhythm. If you’re a night owl, work late. If you’re an early bird, get to work at dawn.

Get out of the house.

I am not ashamed to admit that between taking care of my son, working, and keeping house, sometimes (especially now that it’s cold) I easily go through an entire day without setting foot outside. This isn’t good for me or my son’s sanity. As a rule, I try to get dressed in the morning (even though it’s usually jeans and a t-shirt), and get out of the house at least once a day. When the weather is nice, we went to the park. Now we go to the gym or the library or run some errands. If home is particularly distracting one day, head to Panera or Starbucks for a few hours. Even if you’re just getting out of the house to get out of the house, it’s important to feel like you’re a member of society sometimes.

Take a day (or two) off.

Unfortunately, one of the things you give up when you’re self-employed is paid vacations. But the nice thing about working from home is that you can work from anywhere. In a perfect world, you can afford to take time off for a vacation at least once a year, even if it means you’re answering emails on the beach. Even if you have to work on your vacation, one thing you shouldn’t compromise is a weekend. Most people don’t work 7 days a week, and neither should you. Take a real day off at least once a week. You may not be able to escape your inbox entirely, but you can spend time with your family, tackle personal projects, and recharge without feeling shackled to your desk.

How do you balance work/home life as a work-at-home parent?

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