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Seven Tips for Managing Your Home Office

by Debbie Williams

As a home office business owner you can budget your finances, create whiz-bang proposals, and effectively maintain a client list. But when it comes to working with unauthorized personnel—those under twenty and less than five feet tall, your mind draws a blank, and you’re not quite sure how to balance family time with productive work time.

Use these seven tips for managing your time, and effectively limit interruptions from your own residential staff.

  1. Work WITH, not AGAINST, your kids’ schedule by utilizing naptimes or when they are doing independent schoolwork. This is probably the best advice I can give to anyone working from home, especially if you are just launching your home business. Trying to force your family’s schedule to fit into your mold creates tension and upheaval. If your children are young, work when they are napping or after they go to sleep at night. As they grow older, you can do a little work when they are having a snack at the table or in their highchair. When they are older still, you can change your schedule to suit your school time.
  2. Set office hours and stick to them. Post this list on your fridge or bulletin board where your family can see it, and remind yourself to close up shop at the appointed hour. Being accessible 24/7 is not the road to success if you are spreading yourself so thin that your family barely recognizes you and your phone rings around the clock. Focus on work during office hours only.
  3. Close the door and walk away, or put up a decorative folding screen to block the view of works in progress. If you walk by your home office or desk piled high with reports, it’s hard to focus on what your family needs from you. Although many of us can and do multi-task quite well, it’s fairly impossible to concentrate on everything equally well— something you hear and respond to will suffer in the process.
  4. Establish boundaries.
    • Create a “do not touch” pile or “do not enter” zone in your work area. If you allow your four-year-old daughter to color at your desk so you can keep her nearby, then don’t be surprised when she colors your sales report or presentation handouts. Consider making a niche or small desk for her to use as her own office, complete with office supplies. Be sure to instruct her in the use of your office, such as what is usable and what is not allowed so that there are no future misunderstandings.
    • If you do not want anyone in your work area under any circumstances, then tell your family your wishes up front. Don’t wait until there is a disaster to notify them of the rules. One of my clients made her rules crystal clear by hanging a construction-paper sign on her door: A stop sign meant do not come in under any circumstances; a yellow smiley face meant come on in and keep me company—let’s work together.
  5. Create phone rules.
    • No talking nearby is allowed, use an inside voice, or whisper when mom or dad is on the phone is the first rule.
    • Do not allow children or unauthorized persons to answer your business line. Even if your family member answers professionally, you may not be ready to speak with a potential client and don’t need to be put on the spot. When you’re elbow deep in diaper changes or mediating a fight among siblings, the last thing you need is to switch gears and speak to someone wanting to sponsor your sales conference!
    • Screen your phone calls during temper tantrums (and we’re talking about your kids here, not you!). This helps you focus on home matters when they need to be a top priority. Don’t worry about the caller; if it’s important, he’ll call back or leave a message.
  6. Assemble a quiet Activity Box during special times such as phone calls, writing time, or during times when you need to really focus on your work.
    • If your children are infants are toddlers, stash toys in a milk crate or wicker basket and pull these out before returning phone calls or sitting down to balance your checkbook. Preschoolers love looking at books or creating masterpieces with markers, and these should be used only during special times. Older children might enjoy watching a video or working with modeling clay, and that usually provides you with fifteen minutes or so of uninterrupted time (if you’re lucky.)
    • If all else fails, just tell your little junior partner that you need a few minutes to finish working on a very important project, then set the kitchen timer and place it in view but well out of reach. When the timer rings, put down your work and make time for some family time.
  7. Use “kid multiplication” when all else fails: give your children ten minutes and get back twenty. Set the work aside, take a short break, and read a story or work a puzzle. Tell a joke, have a snack, or plan a slumber party. Your child will let you know when he’s had enough, and before long will be back at building towers and fighting aliens. After a short kid-break, you’ll be rested and ready to get back to work for a few more minutes.

In Summary:

Every parent has to figure out the balance of work and family, and that changes as your children’s needs change—there is no magic formula. But the journey can be rewarding and filled with wonderful adventures.

Debbie Williams is an organizing strategist, homeschooling mom, and founder of the online organizing site  She is the author of Common Sense Organizing (Champion Press, January 2005), and hosts a weekly syndicated talk radio show, “By the Book.” This article first appeared in TVHE, Summer 2005.

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