Working From Home
By Susan Ward

Many people dream about being able to work at home. They imagine themselves in their immaculate home office zipping through tasks while sipping a cappuccino (or herbal tea), savoring their new unparalleled efficiency.

After all, compared to the standard office, a home office is an oasis, and who wouldn’t get more done if they didn’t have to work surrounded by noise and constant interruption, and have to waste time attending useless meetings?

If you’re going to work at home, rather than just be at home, you need to create an environment that will allow you to operate in a business-like manner. Here are seven ways or "rules" to help you get organized and create a home-based business environment that encourages work rather than hinders it. The first three of these rules will help you organize your home office so you can work at home more productively and the second four will help you organize your work schedule in ways that will discourage others from interrupting you and keep you motivated when you're working at home.

1) Set Up a Separate Home Office

If you're going to work at home, you need a home office; sharing the kitchen table just doesn't cut it. Set up a room as a home office if possible, but if you can't, make sure you have at least a desk where you can keep your home based business materials organized and they'll stay undisturbed when you're not working. (Nothing says chaos like having a small child with sticky fingers sort through your papers!)

A separate work space helps you separate your work life from your home life. Entering your home office mentally prepares you to go to work, and establishes a distance (no matter how small) between ‘work’ and ‘home’. A demarcated home office can also serve as a signal to other family members that “you’re working”, and not to be disturbed lightly.

2) Make Your Home Office a Work Space

A cluttered desk may not be the sign of a cluttered mind, but piles of disorganized faxes, bills, and memos are definitely off-putting when you're trying to work at home. You need to be able to sit down in your your home office and go to work, without having to clear a space or hunt for a particular piece of paper. Getting your home office organized and keeping it that way prevents distractions and time-wasting. Buy an in and out basket and use it, invest in a filing cabinet, and have a wastepaper can handy so you can clean up when you close up for the day. Keep all your relevant working materials in your work space. Having to walk into another room to retrieve a file can be a serious waste of time.

3) Minimize Distractions

No matter what type of home based business you operate, you need to be able to concentrate to work at home. This will be impossible if other family members are wandering in and out of your home office asking you questions or if the phone is ringing constantly.

Tell your family members what your work schedule is and ask them to respect it by not interrupting you unless absolutely necessary. If you have small children, the best thing to do is have someone else watch them while you work at home; if your spouse can't do this, it can be expensive, but it's necessary. You can't do the job you need to do if you're doing something else.

Get an answering machine or voice mail service if the telephone is an intrusion rather than a sales tool. Ideally, you should put the phone and answering machine in another room so hearing it take the messages is not distracting for you when you're working at home. If you choose this method, be sure that you do check for messages regularly during the day.

Now that your home office is organized, it's time to organize your work schedule so you can actually work at home.

4) Keep Your Calendar Prominent

On the desk, or on your computer, keeping your work schedule deadlines visible so you can get organized and stay on task is crucial. Get in the habit of starting every work at home business day by looking at your calendar and the deadlines or to-do activities you've listed there; focus on what you can and can't accomplish that day and prioritize your tasks. Deciding what to do and when you need to do it will put you in work-mode and let you work more efficiently.

5) Keep Track of Your Time

Time tracking is obviously important if you're working billable hours, but you should keep track of all the time you work at home so you can adjust your work schedule if necessary and see if you're achieving your home-based business goals. You may have a home-based business goal of working only five hours a day, for instance, but find that doing so doesn't produce enough income for you. If you haven't been time tracking, you'll be in for a nasty shock six months later. The easiest way to keep track of your time is to use a notebook or daytimer and write down your hours and tasks throughout the working day as you work at home.

Remember to include work-related activities such as answering email and paperwork in your time tracking; if you don't list them as "work" you won't think of them as work, and will put them off. Make these unappetizing tasks part of your regular work at home routine, so you avoid having to shut down your home based business for days on end while you try to catch up on paperwork you should have been doing all year long!

6) Keep to Your Work Schedule

Determine how many hours a day you want to work and when, and stick to it. The huge advantage of working at home is that you can work when you want, so if you find the best time to work is afternoons and evenings, work then. If you're working at home around the needs of your children and/or spouse, you may find that getting up really early in the mornings will give you the quiet time you need. But whatever work schedule you establish, be consistent. Your work will go much easier and more efficiently if you stay on a regular schedule, whatever it is.

7) Be Realistic

You're not going to be able to put in ten hour days when you work at home, more than likely. If you work at home, you're the one who's going to have to deal with the door to door solicitors, the neighbour who likes to drop in, and whatever house crisis happens, from the plugged toilet through the delivery arrival. Determine how many hours you can actually sanely, safely work and stick to that work schedule as much as possible. Remember that sleep is vital; people who get up in the middle of the night to put in more hours or who stay up working into the wee hours only get consistently more sleep deprived, not richer.

And if you have a bad work at home day where the universe appears to conspire to interrupt you continuously, be kind to yourself. The great thing about working at home is that you set your own work schedule. Controlling it rather than letting it control you will increase your productivity and your peace of mind.