A recipe for developing work-at-home discipline

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I’ll never forget the day, roughly 18 years ago. It was about 7:30 p.m. and I was busy cleaning up after dinner for my family, which included my two children — ages three and a few months old.

And then, the phone rang.

It was the project manager for the company for which I was freelancing. Of course, this was no social call. She wanted to talk shop.

There I was in the middle of the kitchen, with a toddler running around me and an infant waiting to be released from his high chair — phone in one hand and a dirty plate in the other.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

And, by no fault of my own beyond answering the phone, I was being put to work.

I could tell by this manager’s tone that she thought nothing of calling me in the middle of the evening — after a full day of work, mind you — to talk about a project.

She didn’t even ask if it was a good time to talk. She just jumped into the conversation.

YOU control your work life

Maybe it was that way for her. But in my opinion, it’s only that way if you allow it.

Being constantly stressed out and not knowing where your work life ends and where your personal home life begins is not a given.

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And that’s the moment when I decided that enough was enough.

I was not going to be that woman.

I was not going to be that freelancer.

The whole reason I became a freelancer was to gain control over my work and my life. This was exactly the opposite of my dream. And I wasn’t going to let it be my scenario.

The blurry line between work and home

So if you are going to work from home, how do you separate your work life and your home life — especially when the line between the two can be so blurry? How do you develop the “discipline” for it? Is it simply a matter of will power?

Absolutely not. It’s a matter of creating boundaries.

If you’ve ever tried to diet (as I have too many times to mention), you realize that will power is rarely innate nor the answer. Rather, it’s “built.”

That is, when you don’t have cookies in the house, you won’t eat cookies. Remove the cookies, and you’ve suddenly created the “will” to resist them, simply because you’ve created a boundary to them.

So it is with work-at-home discipline.

No, you can’t remove the house or the work. But you can create effective boundaries that will help provide the necessary discipline get the job done and still devote time to your personal life.

Separating work and home

Do you find yourself working for clients from the moment you wake up until the time you go to bed?

Or, do your home duties pull you away from your freelance work?

In either case, you need to create boundaries that will allow you to regain the other side of your life. Here are some concrete steps to take:

Dedicate a business phone number — and stick to it

Back in the early days, I was smart. I got a phone line dedicated for business use, right off the bat, to make it easier to deduct that as a tax expense.

But I was also stupid. I was still giving my home number to colleagues.

Big mistake! That’s how that manager got a hold of me.

After that fateful day, I only gave my business number to those for whom and with whom I worked. If a call came outside of my official business hours, it would go to voicemail. Return calls weren’t made until my business was officially “open” again.

Nowadays, with fewer landlines in use, more people use their cell phone for all their calls, business and personal.

I’m one of those folks.

So to create a similar boundary with just one phone, I obtained a Google Voice number for business purposes. It’s free, it’s simple to set up, and calls to that number can go to any phone you designate.

Google Voice also gives you the choice of receiving caller ID information from a call or simply knowing that the call is from Google Voice.

If you choose the latter, you’ll always know when an incoming call is for business. Then you can decide whether or not to accept the call.

Let calls go to voicemail 

Over the years, I have found business phone calls to be notorious time-suckers. Rarely are they productive, and they seem to always come in the middle of a hot project.

If I don’t know who’s calling, I don’t answer the phone.

If it’s important, they will leave a voicemail. If they don’t, dollars to donuts, it was a sales call.

Prospects and leads who want to work with you will leave a voicemail, and frankly, I personally don’t want to work with the ones who won’t bother.

Define your workspace 

This is important on more than one front.

If you work at home, for tax purposes, the IRS is going to want to know what percentage of your home is being used for business.

But beyond appeasing the federal government, having a defined workspace helps create an environment in your home that’s all business.

And, it’s even better if that space is a room with a door. You literally can close yourself off from the rest of the house and its beaconing chores.

Resist the urge to bring laptops into living rooms, in front of TVs, and onto kitchen tables.

If you can’t have a dedicated room as an office, put up portable screens or hang curtains as physical barriers that will block your view of the rest of the house.

If you don’t have a desk, use a small table, but just make sure it and everything else within your defined workspace is used purely for work purposes.

Once you’re surrounded only by work-related things, you’ll be better at maintaining a focus on work.

Get help around the house

The idea that we can do it all is just that — a nice thought.

Reality, however, points out that there are only so many hours in the day, plenty of tasks that must be completed, and a limit to what anyone can do.

The solution is to get help, however you can. Family and friends might be options. But if not, don’t be afraid to explore and search out paid services.

For example, people assume — wrongly — that house cleaning services are expensive. Usually, they are pennies on the dollar, when you consider how much you are making an hour versus how much the cleaners are being paid for their time.

The same goes for delivery services.

Here in the Chicago area, we have a company that provides grocery delivery. The prices for goods are comparable to the local supermarkets, and the delivery cost is a fraction of what I make an hour.

Better for me to order quickly online than spend the time and energy driving to and from the store, and then walking around a supermarket, when I could be serving a client instead.

In fact, more and more service-oriented businesses are seeing the value in providing delivery.

For example, some local laundromats now provide delivery.

Again, for less than you are making an hour, they’ll clean your clothes and bring them back to you, folded and on hangers. And some house cleaners will also wash clothes for you, right in your home (mine did).

Get help with the kids

One of the things I learned early in my at-home career was that there really was no way I could watch my very small children properly and still apply myself on the computer.

Oh, there were a few tricks I used successfully.

I would put a small T.V. and chair for my older daughter and a playpen with toys for my toddler son right next to my computer desk, and for an afternoon, they were entertained and safe.

But obviously, for their own well-being and development, I couldn’t keep them like that for hours on end.

So I got help.

In my case, I was fortunate to have parents who weren’t working and loved to spend time wth their grandchildren.

As my kids got older, I paid for occasional after-school programs and summer day camps. Eventually, they matured enough to be left totally to their own devices (and that comes sooner than any of us can imagine).

Use a daily planner

Time management is as important as the management of physical space when creating work-at-home boundaries.

Plan for all of your tasks during the day by carving out time for them on a daily calendar or in a daily planner.

It can be done digitally (my favorite means) or on paper — whichever works for you. But by writing down what you are going to be doing and when, it will help you create divisions in time for your work activities versus your personal ones.

If someone calls you on your home number during your working hours — let it go to voicemail. Call people back during a time specifically marked down as “personal” on your calendar.

Block out chunks of hours for housework.

Get firm regarding a time to wake up and a time to go to sleep, so that both work and home tasks don’t interrupt your necessary rest.

Use a timer

If you decide to deviate from your work schedule, or vice versa, using a timer can keep you from falling too far off track.

Sometimes, that deviation is necessary.

We can all use a break in schedules to refresh our minds, move our bodies, and unwind a little. By doing so, you might find that you return to your regular activities with a better focus and mindset.

For myself, I occasionally need to take a short nap in the middle of my typical work day. But I set an alarm to make sure that I don’t oversleep.

Or, if you feel like you won’t be able to work knowing that there’s a basket of laundry in the other room, go ahead and deliberately make the time to do the laundry.

The key is in being devoted to deliberate, planned activities, as opposed to ones that are frequent, unplanned, and invasive. That way, you remain in complete control of your time and how it’s being spent.

Achieving work-at-home life balance

For those of us creating freelance careers at home, life balance can seem illusive. But the truth is, we often have more control over our situations than we perceive.

By setting up these boundaries, you’ll force yourself to focus on your personal life and your work life. These boundaries will slowly, yet assuredly, take hold as habits.

Eventually, these new habits will form the discipline that you need to create a successful at-home business, while still living a fully satisfying, enjoyable, and complete life.

What about you? Do you have specific boundaries set that work for you? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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About Patricia LaCroix

Patricia LaCroix has had a career in marketing and publishing for longer than she cares to admit. But, despite that it reveals her age, she’s willing to say that she’s been working a creative business from home in some way, shape, or form since 1986. Her creative skills run the gamut and include expertise in both visual and written forms of communication. Patricia’s entrepreneurial yet giving spirit drives her to help others learn how to work from home and create their own “lifestyle” careers.

 

More about Patricia’s business: LaCroix Creative is a full-service creative business in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Patricia leads a talented team of associates who assist her in creating effective graphic design and written content — in print and online. Decades of experience — partnered with caring, personal attention — make LaCroix Creative especially well equipped to serve solopreneurs, start-ups, educators, coaches, healthcare professionals, and self-publishing authors.

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  1. Thanks, Patricia. I set my phone to Do Not Distrurb when I’m working and hired a babysitter to help with the kids. I also have an app called Missed Call Auto SMS Pro that sends a text message to all my missed calls letting them know I’m at work and will get back to them as soon as I am free.

    • You’re welcome, Sharon! Thanks for sharing your tips. I realized after I wrote the article that I forgot to mention the apps designed to keep us from getting distracted from social media (like the app/website blocker “Freedom”)! So many distractions, so little time! 😉 But creating boundaries certainly helps.

  2. Tricia, great post! But oops…I’m sitting here with my laptop in my lap on the couch with the t.v. on in the background at 11:30 P.M.

    I am certainly not naturally inclined to use a schedule, but with 3 small children and homeschooling the older two, it became ultra necessary to create a firm schedule for myself. I have a schedule that starts the moment my alarm goes off early in the morning and follows in 30 minute increments until 5:30 at night. This has helped me immensely!

    • lol! Thanks, Mindy! I have a similar schedule. It might not be completely set in stone, but it does keep me on track, and it also keeps my
      tasks “distinct” and separate, so my various lives intersect less.