Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Time Management 101

How do you strike a balance between work and family, especially when you work from home? In this blog post I will share a few ideas that have worked for me, as well as analyze why it's so difficult, especially in the case of the work at home parent...

The Problem

From my perspective, the problem comes in primarily because we work from home. It's a lot different when you leave the house for 8 to 10 hours a day to work from an office or other away from home facility. Even then people have difficulty sometimes in separating work from their home life, and many even allow the job to take over their lives (i.e., the all-demanding boss becomes the dictator of all of your time). However, the issue seems to actually be compounded when we work from home. Here, every time I check my email there is a chance I will receive a work-related message. Every ring of the telephone could be a client calling about a job. Instead of having at least a physical barrier to help us distinguish work from home, we've actually made the conscious decision to work from home! While this creates a challenging situation in the best of times, during the summer and other breaks from school it can become overwhelming as everything seems to be happening at the home front all at once.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is important for anyone working from home, even more so than someone who works outside the home. In fact, it can be one of the best time management tools for the work at home parent. Let's put it this way ... if you work at home, you had better set some goals, or you will never know if and when you have accomplished what you set out to do! Take the time to think about what you really want out of life and what it will cost you in terms of your time and commitment. Then, you have to decide what is most important. Put your time emphasis on those things that are most important to you! Look, you only live once and your kids will only be kids one time around. If you spend every waking moment working, whether for yourself or for 'the man', you'll wake up one day to find that you may or may not have achieved your financial goals, but your children will be long gone. This doesn't mean they will hate you or not have any respect for you ... but more than likely the whole reason you decided to work from home will have been lost - forever.

I know for me the goal of working from home has always been two-fold. First, it has never really been about the money. I'm always learning new ways to make a living from home and I'm sure my income will continue to increase. However, it is and probably will always be less than I could make as a manager in a corporate environment. I should know. I've been there, done that. So why am I working from home? My goals have always been fairly simple, even though sometimes I lose sight of them fairly easily.

It's My Time, Isn't It?

First and foremost I have always wanted more control of my time. Nothing irritated me more than having to ask for approval to take a day off or to take vacation time that I earned. I was always resentful of the ever-shifting lunch break. Sometimes it would be at the same time, sometimes my boss would suddenly call a lunch meeting literally minutes before I was heading out the door. What would have been a pleasant picnic lunch at the park suddenly became a mandatory lunch meeting will all the company yes men and lackeys. What shift I worked, where I worked, and when I could go to lunch, break, and vacations - all of these things were determined by my boss. It always felt like I had no real control over my own time. So, my first goal in working from home was a selfish one, but I wanted control back of my time. It is easy to lose sight of this goal, especially when working from home. As a freelance professional, suddenly the clients have a direct line to my home, to my personal email, right into my life! But before I share a solution with you regarding this first goal, let's take a look at what is probably the second most common goal for parents who decide to work from home.

Are Those My Kids?

Sometimes when we work away from home we get the feeling that we don't know our own family. We can grow distant from our spouse and especially from our kids. I know for me when I worked as a manager in a plastics factory my days were very long and that was part of the expectation that came with the territory. Most of the time my children were still in bed when I left for work and there were many days that they were already in bed when I got home. On some occasions they would stay up late just to kiss me goodnight as soon as I walked in the door, then off to bed they went! I found myself wondering who these kids really were. After all, I had no idea ... I simply wasn't taking the time to get to know them!

So another goal of working from home for me involved getting to spend some time with my children. Now, I will admit that this hasn't been all roses, as you no doubt will concede if you work from home. The ideal situation is far from reality, especially when the children are smaller, which has been my experience thus far. I have three children all currently under the age of eight, so they are starving for attention and would love to have the opportunity to monopolize my entire day if I were to let them. However, this would be counter-productive too, right? After all, if Daddy doesn't work the bills don't get paid! So there is a fine line here that demands our attention. We don't want to fall into the trap of allowing our children, who are now co-habitating with us in the "office", to monopolize all of our time so that we get nothing else done. By the same token, we don't want to end up working 24/7 so that despite the fact that we are working from home we still never spend any time with the family! So what is the solution? There is one simple thing that has worked for me. It is not without it's own set of problems, but it has helped dramatically in setting boundaries for me while working from home. It is the schedule, or the work calendar.

The Work At Home Schedule

So how does it work? It's simple really - you just have to take the place of your boss! Set yourself a schedule and a limit to how many hours you will work each week. Make a commitment to your clients that you will be available for a certain number of days each week and then for specific hours of each day. Now, be flexible - after all, you did decide to work from home to get back some control of your time, right? I'll share with you part of my schedule so you can get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Officially, my work day starts at 12:00 noon and ends at 8:00 p.m. Yep, that's right. First off, I've decided that I like to sleep in. Is there anything wrong with that? Not really, not when you work from home! Next, I work straight through lunch and breaks. I don't smoke, but even if I did I would probably do it from my desk rather than go outside. I do use the restroom (why do we call it that?) and make a "tea run" to the kitchen every so often. However, breaks always used to irritate me at work. They came at inopportune times and always seemed to interfere with my thought process and work flow. So, since I'm working from home, I cut them out. As for lunch, I usually eat before I start working and if I decide I want a small snack during the work hours, I'm lucky enough to have a lovely wife to fix me something I can eat while working through lunch. On some days I will take a lunch, but guess what? It's entirely up to me!

This schedule allows me to spend some personal time alone in the mornings as well as spend some time with the family. In addition, after work I can spend some time (although less during school months) with the children as well. However, most of the evening time after my officially scheduled work hours I allow for time with my wife or time on personal projects, whether they be income related or other areas of interests (read: hobbies). The only kicker here is that if I get too carried away in the evenings I sometimes stay up waaay to late. Oh, well I guess that's ok because I do get to sleep in.

Finally, it's up to me what days of the week I work and when I take a vacation. As a freelance professional, I have found that most clients are respectful of this concept. After all, I did decide to work from home for a reason, right? For me, Saturdays are always off limits. We observe a seventh-day Sabbath and so we don't do any work related stuff from Friday night at sundown to Saturday night at sundown. For many people, Sunday would be their day of religious observance. Others may not have any such preference at all. Whatever your view on this point is doesn't really matter, as long as you set aside what days you will have off - no matter what. You have to make time to take time off, or working from home will take over your life. It can be worse than a job if you're not careful You thought your old boss could be a hard task-master, wait until you meet your own dark side! So for me, Monday through Friday are the standard work days. I do work on Sundays, on occasion, however I fully reserve the right to take every Sunday off.

As for vacations, most clients don't care when you take vacation - just be sure and notify them ahead of time that you are going to be out of the "office". Working from home, I find that vacation time is more a function of me having the money saved up to do something or go somewhere. After all, since I'm working for myself from home, I don't have the luxury of a 'paid vacation' benefit. I have to make sure I budget appropriately and set aside enough money so that once or twice a year I can take time off without feeling the pinch of no money for a week.

Conclusion

I know this has been a long post, but I'm hoping you really got something out of this. Just to recap, I want to go over the things that have helped me manage my time better while working from home.
  1. Set Goals - why are you working from home? Put every work decision into perspective in light of these goals. For me it was more control over personal time and more time with the family. If your goals are similar, then set boundaries around these things and protect them from your work!
  2. Scheduling Calendar - Set a work schedule, and stick to it! This will help you keep a balance between work and play. Before I had a schedule I had weeks were I would not get any work done. Other weeks I would flip-flop the other direction and work my butt off, but never see my family. Having a daily schedule and weekly set-in-stone "off" days has allowed me to be more productive and to ensure time with my family.
  3. Enjoy Yourself - This one wasn't covered earlier, so consider this a bonus - your reward if you will - for reading this far into the blog post! Anyway, you have to enjoy yourself. You were miserable at work at a regular job, right (most people anyway)? So why be miserable at home? Find something that you enjoy doing, and do it from home to make money. I can't stress enough the importance of being happy with your "work", especially now that it takes place in your home. Before, you could make the effort to leave your work problems at work. Now, the live with you. So enjoy yourself, enjoy your work and enjoy your family!
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