“All that really belongs to us is time; even he who has nothing else has that.” - Baltasar Gracian
Many people dream of being able to work from their home, running their very own home-based business. They dream of having a more flexible schedule, being able to go out to lunch with friends, work any time of the day they choose, and not have a boss looking over their shoulder. Ahhh, what freedom!
However, time management is often more difficult for the person working in a home office than it is for someone in a conventional office atmosphere. The home worker has to learn to be a self-starter. There’s no boss around to check on you and make sure you’re on track. It can also be a very lonely workplace, since there are no co-workers in your home office.
It’s more important than ever to have your schedule laid out the day before; so as soon as you get up and get ready to start your day, you know what’s on the agenda first thing. Try to analyze your workweek to determine where you’re losing time and where you can economize and find more time to finish your projects.
There are time wasters lurking even in the home office. Flexibility brings with it a price to pay. You may not have the time even to go out to lunch, unless you’re meeting with a client. The dream of working a couple of hours, then running around with friends all afternoon is just that — a dream. If you’re the only worker in your little home office, you don’t have time to run around, unless it’s related somehow to your business.
Instead of co-workers hanging around your office or cubicle, it may be friends who just thought they’d drop by and see if you’d like to go get some coffee or lunch. In their eyes, you work at home, so you can just drop everything, since your schedule is so flexible. You may have to get tough with these well-meaning types. Let them know that just because you work at home, doesn’t mean you can just drop everything and play. Working at home is still working. If you stop every time someone wants to visit, you’ll wind up making up that time at night or weekends and you’ll soon have no time to rest and relax. JFK told us, “Time is a tool, not a crutch.”
Phone calls can also be a problem in the home office. The same friends that take up your time in your office may wind up calling you and wanting to chitchat, when you have deadlines to meet and tons of work to do.
In this instance, voice mail is worth its weight in gold for the home worker. When you’re in the middle of a project and that phone rings, let your voice mail or answering machine take the call.
Don’t let that ringing phone interrupt you mid project. Later, when you take a break, return as many of the calls as you can, starting with the business calls first. Once again, your friends will have to learn that just because you work at home, it doesn’t mean you have time to chitchat on the phone. Call them back in the evening, when you can relax and take your time; not while you’re working.
Organizing your mail system takes only a few minutes a day and can save you hours of time. Don’t let tons of mails pile up on your desk. Deal with them every day. Professional organizers will advise you to touch each piece of mail only once. If it’s urgent, deal with it immediately.
If it’s important, but not urgent, tack it on a bulletin board. If you leave it on your desk, it will get covered up with other things and you’ll lose it. If it’s something you should hang on to, then file it right away. Trash or junk mail that’s unnecessary to you should be relegated to that round file next to your desk, better known as the trash can.
For those working at home, it’s even more important to develop personal time management skills. If you don’t keep track of your schedule, who will? You must learn to set realistic goals and a plan for the completion of projects. Prioritize your tasks, make vital decisions, and carefully schedule your working time, your networking time, clients meetings, and any deadlines.
Depending on your home business, delegating could be a little trickier than in standard offices. And if you’re a one-man/woman show, delegating becomes an art form. Those working totally alone, have no one else to delegate duties to, right? Not so! It may be more difficult at the beginning, when money is tight and you feel you must do all the jobs yourself. Once you are making a tidy sum, it might actually save you money to contract out some of the tasks you currently handle.
For instance, simple paper work such as filing, copying, mailing, etc. that’s taking up too much of your billable hours, could be done by a temporary secretary. Hiring a college student to help you out could actually save you money by freeing up your time and allowing you to concentrate on important tasks that will bring in more funds.
If your hourly earning is $100 per hour, you should be focusing on the work that brings in that $100, not on mundane chores that you could hire out for $10 per hour to a college student. Instead of cleaning your house, hire that out to a professional house cleaner and get back to your $100 per hour work. Doing anything but what you need to be doing, is a waste of your time and actually costs you money.
As wonderful as working from home can be, there are some disadvantages too. There are definitely more distractions at home than in a conventional office. At home, it’s too easy to be lured away from your work by the siren call of the television. Coffee breaks become more of a problem and the refrigerator is so-o-o handy, maybe too handy. For women working from home, the call of the laundry is fairly strong too. “But it’s so easy, I’ll just toss a load in now; and then, no problem,” you might think. It’s just another distraction. Get back to work!
Once you develop a routine in your home office and some serious discipline, you’ll be okay. Some days you will be so productive, you’ll accomplish so much, meet all your deadlines, satisfy clients, and do so many tasks that it will be quite a high for you. If only all days could be like that.
But you’ll have some days when you’re constantly distracted or constantly interrupted, you’ll have to deal with less than satisfied clients, woefully miss your deadlines, and feel like you didn’t get nearly enough done. Just accept that there will be such days and move on. Mason Cooley in an interview for ‘O’ Magazine, said, “Regret for wasted time, is more wasted time.” Instead of ranting and raving when days like that occur, just move on, and determine that the next day will be different.
Pull out that wonderful little day runner of yours and go carefully through your upcoming schedule. The better prepared and better scheduled you are, the less likely more bad days like that will occur, at least not very often. Remember that Plan B you’re supposed to have and fall back to that. When days like that hit you, just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.
If you’re the head of the household and working from home, or a mother running a business from your home, there are other distractions to consider. That’s right. Your children (bless their little hearts) can be the biggest distraction for you. When they’re in school, it’s a quiet atmosphere, conducive to lots of work; but when they’re at home, it’s a whole different ballgame.
You’ll need to work in a room that you can close off and try to keep quiet, especially if you need to talk to other business people or clients on the phone. Nothing says “unprofessional” louder than the scream of a small child in the middle of your conversation with a new client.
If your children are old enough to understand that you need peace and quiet, especially when you’re on the phone, then you’ll do fine. Smaller children and babies are another story. This is where you might want to delegate a bit, by hiring someone to keep an eye on the little darlings while you work, at least for a few hours.
Knowing how to balance your work life and your home life is a little more difficult when you work from your home. It’s important to have a shut down time, when you put away the work, close your office, turn off the business phone, and give yourself time to relax and enjoy with your family.
Single people working from home have a harder time of it, though, especially if they’re on a roll; they’re more likely to work late into the night, and on weekends, because they have no family to give their time. So, it’s even more important for them to have a shut down time, to remind themselves that the business day is over.
In a crowded home, having a separate room to use as your office is mandatory for maximum efficiency. Not only will it give you as much privacy as you can hope for, but it will help separate your work life from your home life. Let others know when that door is closed, you’re busy working and should not be disturbed except for dire emergencies.
Now that you’ve got a workspace in your home that’s all yours, let’s talk about getting it organized and keeping it that way.
Let’s start with your desk, since most of us have computers in our homes; and for home-based businesses, it’s essential. Most CPUs these days are in the form of towers and can be stored beneath your desk, and won’t take up valuable desk space. Purchase a desk large enough to house the monitor and still give you plenty of space for necessities like pen and pencil cups, stapler, paper clips and holder, as well as baskets or other containers for bits and pieces necessary for day-to-day work.
Keep a calendar in a prominent place on your desk or above it. Write down all appointments, deadlines, and special events you don’t want to forget. Make sure you have a clock somewhere in your office and keep track of your time during the day. Being late for appointments just screams amateur.
Make sure there is sufficient light on your desk; poor light will tire out your eyes and give you headaches. Natural light is preferred if possible, though you should have a good lamp for cloudy days and evenings at work.
A bulletin board above your desk is a great place to tack up those important notes and bits of info you can’t afford to lose. Go through the material tacked up on it periodically and discard out-of-date items. This is also a great place to keep a few pictures of loved ones, to cheer you up every so often.
A file cabinet or two is indispensable for the home-based worker. They are available in different sizes (regular cabinets as well as lateral file cabinets), depending upon the size of your office and your individual needs. When purchasing these file cabinets, don’t forget to also purchase hanging files and file folders. Filing is of great importance, especially if your home office is very small. File everything as it comes into your office and periodically go through all your files and updates, discarding any out-of-date materials.
Remember to tidy up your office the last few minutes of your workday, putting away files you’ve finished with and setting up files for the next day’s work. Clean up your office at the end of the week. It’s important to stay on top of things; don’t let them pile up.
It will take you more time to go through large piles of papers and junk once a month, than if you tidy up each day or even at the end of every week. This saves you time and energy. Organizing needs to be maintained, or you’ll go back to your original messy office.
Managing your time, even when working at home, is essential. If you have a large family and things get noisy and hectic during the day, you may find getting up earlier will give you the quiet time you need to get your day started more smoothly.
Whatever schedule you decide is best for you, it’s important that you stick with it as much as possible. Flexibility is nice, but the work still has to be done. So, try to stay with the schedule that you’ve laid out for yourself. Suzanne Frisse said, “Working without a list leaves me without a clear direction to my day. I end the day exhausted, scratching my head and saying, ‘I know I was busy, but I seem to have nothing to show for all that activity!’”
Whichever type of schedule planner you decide to use (whether commercial planners, electronic planners, or your own planning sheets on your computer), print them out, and use them every day. Each planning sheet should contain:
Once you know approximately how long it should take to complete each task, figure out blocks of time you can use to complete that task.
You can also make up daily planning sheets, showing all appointments, meetings, phone calls, any necessary paper work, daily chores, and of course, the time frame you think you’ll need to accomplish them.
Don’t forget to do planning sheets for any upcoming projects you are aware of, the estimated time frames to complete the job, and any deadlines or due dates. Thinking and planning for an upcoming project will mean much less stress for you later. Good preparation takes out a lot of the uncertainty, meaning clearer thinking and less stress.
If the project comes with an automatic deadline, do your best to stick to it and finish the project ahead of the due date. If there’s no particular due date, assign yourself your own deadline for completion of the project. There’s an old Scottish proverb that says, “What may be done at any time will be done at no time.”
When it comes to your to-do list, don’t let list-making become a substitute for the actual “doing.” Taking too much time to make your list works against you time-wise, because it actually keeps you from getting started.
As your workday goes along, you may find it necessary to add or subtract from your planning sheet. Things happen, stuff changes, and you must adapt. That project that wasn’t supposed to be due for three months has just been bumped up to four weeks from today. What do you do? It may wreck your planning sheet and mess up your schedule in general, but it has to be done. Other projects may have to be shelved for a time, maybe indefinitely. It will probably mean long hours to play catch up, but you have to be prepared for any contingencies. Always allow for the unexpected; you never know what will happen.
And when you’re doing that catch up, or just working on a particularly large project, remember to give yourself a break now and then. Marcia Yudkin tells us that studies on human concentration show it rises and falls in ninety-minute cycles. So every hour and a half, you should take a ten-minute break. This will increase your capacity for work. If you work at a computer, it’s important to rest your eyes occasionally. Too much time staring at the monitor, especially if you must read a lot of material online, will eventually make you feel drowsy.
Take into account your energy levels during the day. Don’t plan a huge project at a time when your energy level is at its lowest; you’ll have trouble concentrating otherwise. Don’t let yourself get too tired or too hungry; it’s hard to focus on work when all you want to do is lay down for a nap, or if the thought of food takes precedence over your work.
And to help keep yourself focused, make time to think about the bigger picture - the future you want for yourself and your family. Make the most of your time, your work, and your life. Keep in mind the specific targets and goals that you want to achieve. Keeping your eyes on the prize will help you avoid making unfortunate detours on the path to your future. Forget the side-trips and concentrate on what you really, really want.
Edmund Burke said, “You can never plan the future by the past.” Forget the past, it’s over; the future isn’t here yet; concentrate on the here and now and learn to become organized. The future will be here before you know it.
“Much may be done in those little shreds and patches of time which every day produces and which most men throw away.” - Charles Caleb