Project Management

Maintaining a balance when work and home are the same place

When working from home, the lines between work time and personal time can start to blur. IT consultant Chip Camden shares a tip on how to maintain a work-life balance.

 In the IT industry, balancing work with the rest of your life can be tricky. It's often difficult to leave work at work and to avoid becoming a workaholic; it's especially tough for those of us who work at home.

Working at home has its advantages. It's nice to limit my commute to a stumble down the hallway. And I can be flexible about my hours, which allows me to take care of personal errands when it makes sense to do so, such as taking my car in first thing on a Monday morning or shopping on a weekday to avoid the weekend crowds. I can easily make up that lost work time on evenings or weekends because my office is in my house.

It's a double-edged sword, though. When I have more work on my plate than I can easily finish (and when don't I?), I'm tempted to expand those evening and weekend hours just to catch up. But it always seems that the more you get done, the more there is to do. It's easy to start thinking of every hour in the day (and night) as potential revenue; this can become a recipe for quick-frying your personal life.

Interruptions are another problem. I'm a little bit too accessible when someone at home scrapes their elbow, discovers a spider, or has a question that only takes 10 seconds to answer but wastes half an hour because it takes me that long to get my train of thought back on the rails. Not to mention my lovely wife's "honey do" list. It drives her crazy to have to wait until I'm off the computers before she can crack the whip to get me to put up a light fixture or move the furniture around.

Having all these personal to-dos available also provides fuel for the procrastination engine. When you're dreading getting started on a project, it's far too easy to say you'll get right to it after you clip your nails or feed the dogs or make those copies for the mortgage company.

At its worst, all of these combined problems can make you feel like you never leave work and like you never get anything done. You hit the bed at the end of the day still thinking about that algorithm you were thinking about last night but never got around to writing today.

What's the answer?

The answer is to set artificial constraints. Set standard start and stop times for your work, and make exceptions to that schedule truly exceptional. Make a big deal out of the fact that you're taking time off work, so it doesn't become the norm. And when you're at work, don't allow personal interruptions that aren't emergencies. Your family should pretend you're onsite while you're on the clock.

Conversely, make sure you leave the office at your standard check-out time -- and leave your work there, too. Being able to enjoy your personal life is presumably the reason why you work so hard anyway. If you do have to work some extra hours here and there, make a big deal out of that too.

This doesn't mean that your standard work hours have to be Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. As I mentioned, it's nice to be able to take advantage of our independence to do things when they're easiest to do. So schedule some work time every Saturday, and keep part of a weekday open instead. Or you can even slide that opening around to make it to your kids' school play, but make sure you account for it. You don't ever want to feel guilty about working too little or too much.

By maintaining a clear separation between work time and home time, you can enjoy both while looking forward to each transition. Blurring the lines between the two can make you feel overwhelmed by both.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

21 comments
reisen55
reisen55

This morning I had an emergency call for a down server in Holmdel, New Jersey and, at the same time, had to build a model Fokker Triplane with my grandson on the back table AND manage a family conference call with the parent (1 of 2) of visiting grandchildren, all of whom were waking up and demanding food. Well, sometimes I compare it to the worst job I EVER had and it becomes alot easier. LOL.

snrao_it
snrao_it

Above all keeping a schedule for work with remark at end of day if it was done or not helps in rescheduling not done things for next day helps. Whether you are at workplace or home this is a must.

mcbuffum
mcbuffum

Excellent article, Chip! It really struck a chord with me! You eloquently expressed how I've felt about my telecommuting position. I'm a support manager and software testing manager (I wear two "hats") for an Internet-based company. I'm salaried for 40 hours, but easily (and without even realizing it) work 60 hours or more per week. There is always something to do, and it seems the more I do, the more there is to do! There is no such thing as "weekends off" for me, and I easily work 12 hour days. When I'm asked what I do for a living and I mention that I work from home, the initial responses I get are "Oh, you are so lucky! or "Oh, I could never get anything done; I'd be too busy cleaning my house." Or worse, my husband doesn't always understand why the house looks like a tornado hit it ("No, honey, it's not possible to do chores and work at the same time.") I often do use the words "it's a double-edged sword" to describe my working from home. Problem with working from home, is that you can't leave the building! And, when at work, I do often get interruptions about issues at home (even from husband) about issues that I would never dream of calling him at work about! When it's "crunch-time" I do have to shut the door to my office and tell family members they can't interrupt me. The kids know that when I'm on conference calls they need to be quiet. It's kind of cute, actually, to hear them say, "Quiet...Mom's having a meeting." I've been trying to shift gears from my "I live to work" mentality toward "I work to live" or at least find some middle ground. One of the the "tricks" that helps me is actually powering down my computer (instead of leaving it on standby, "just in case") and going off to do something fun with family. But even when I do this, SOMEONE will call me about a project. Just yesterday, my husband asked me, "Don't you get a day off?" and I heard the words, "There's no such thing as a day off at this company!" fly out of my mouth! This shouldn't be though, and I realize that part of this problem is my need for more self-discipline; and the need for me to just say "no" when I'm called on my "day off" about a "non-emergency" issue. Here's wishing everyone a productive and balanced day! Maggie

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

My home office has been my primary office since 1991. The points you make are good ones. The main thing is that one needs to exercise strong self discipline. Work time is work time, period. And at home you need to communicate that fact clearly and unmistakably to your family. I'm not saying that is easy. But it must be done. It took a while, and some re-enforcements, but after a period of time my wife and kids became used to it. And in fact when other family or friends would drop by to visit during the day, would warn them that Dad was "at work", and to leave me alone. The same discipline had to be applied to myself. At work was at work. And during work time I keep at the work related tasks, just as if I were in an office. Breaks and lunchtime are taken with the same limitations as when I would be at a regular office. i.e. 15 minute morning break, half hour for lunch. I stick to the same routine. That is not to say that I do not sometimes employ "flex time". That is, I sometimes purposely schedule a time in the day during which I'll take care of something else besides work. A doctor's appointment, time out to have an extended lunch with a relative or old friend who is passing through town whom I've not seen in a while, etc. BUT ... I make such an exception rather than a rule. Has to be important, and not something easily done at some other time, for me to make the exception. And when I do take such a time out, I keep track of the time and force myself to make it up properly. It's as if I'm operating with a mental time clock, punching on and off the clock. Its just that I do it in my head as versus actually using a time card slipped into a punch clock. Likewise, when I do need to work extra hours to meet some deadline or unusual work demand, I keep track of that. And take "comp time" off at some later period. FWIW, I have always found it to be necessary to have a separate phone line at home as my own personal "work phone". No one else uses it, or answers it, etc. As concerns "after hours" calls. If I'm home, I take them. No problem for me. Some of my co-workers work flex time, or late on an important project. And my own boss frequently sits at his home after hours catching up on a day's events, and comes up with questions or something he needs to tell me. If I'm otherwise engaged in personal business, that's what voice mail is for. But. if not engaged in something else, will take the call. Now, sometimes customers will call me "after hours". If its really important, I'll talk to them. If its not, I'll listen to whatever, but then politely remind the person that I am actually "off work", and tell him or her that I'll address whatever the following work day. I've yet to run into a customer who did not understand that point. I do reassure them that in the future, if it truly is an emergency, certainly they should call. No problem in that case. The main thing I've found, is that one needs to exercise the self discipline to treat work hours just like that, work hours. And behave accordingly. That's not easy for some folks. I have a friend who works from home much of the time. And it causes him some issues. The main problem is that he procrastinates, finds excuses to take a break from work to do something else frequently, and so forth. So he often finds himself in the situation of being "behind" in his work and playing the catch-up game. Working into the late night or early morning hours. Spending hours on a Sunday evening feverishly pumping away at some work related stuff that has to be completed by Monday morning, etc. Not infrequently this cuts into personal time with family and friends. i.e. Just last week a bunch of us were getting together for a barbecue, attended by close family and friends. A time for family and friends to get together, eat well, enjoy each others' company, and so forth. But, once again, he was behind the eight ball, behind in his work. I had to press him hard to simply show up and grab a bite to eat (he only lives 5 minutes from my place). He did that, after I pushed him into it, but then claimed urgency to get his work tasks done, and he soon left to pound away on his computer to get reports and summaries done. Things he SHOULD have done previously in the week. But which he'd put off in order to putter around doing this or that household task (he loves gardening, so can often be found out in the yard in spring and summer), or to watch some favored show on TV, etc. He's always complaining that he's behind in his work and that it detracts from his personal time. But I know him very well. Have known him since we met in the jungles of Viet Nam. His problems with work are largely all of his own doing. When he is REALLY behind in his work, he goes into his office at the company building on purpose. Knowing that there he'll keep his nose to the grindstone there. It's just that at home, he really has a hard time sticking to work schedules and work activities.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

When I first started working in the field, I vowed that I would keep my work and home life seperate, but after twenty years I found that I was only fooling myself. When my home life became a priority and work had to be secondary, things began to get better and I was much happier, both at home and work. Today, I have to mix both throughout the day and schedule each day to fit the family as the first priority and the work in between those commitments. My boss understands that this is neccesary for me to retain my sanity and to prevent distractions during work. This arrangement insures that when working I'm totally committed to just that and not distracted by other things. Balance is the key.

Mike-Kemp
Mike-Kemp

I've been working from my home office for about 11 years. If you know there's a period during the day when you regularly struggle to get work done, manage it. For me, early afternoon is always unproductive (unless I'm on a client call), and I've learned not to fight it, but to go do something else, something not related to work. I'm an early riser and ususally get to my desk around 5 a.m., but alter on, right after lunch, is tough for me. If there's a short (one hour) "honey do" I can knock off, that's killing two birds with one stone, because it's being productive (which helps make it okay to be away from work) and it gets a "to do" done. Plus, it eliminates that awful time of trying to drag myself productively through a time when my mind seems to want to shut off! Mike http://kempresources.com

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I have to confess that I haven't taken a proper vacation in almost 12 years -- just a long weekend here and there. The last time I took two weeks off, it took months to recover.

doug.duke
doug.duke

Great article. Focus is the key to successful home office working. My company closed down our formal office here to align costs to the available business (aka. "saving money"). Now a couple of us work from home offices. We are a global company and I have engagements right across the Asia-Pacific region, where I travel frequently as well. In reality I was rarely using the formal office for the relatively infrequent times I was at "home". I certainly don't miss the twice-daily commute !! I also work with colleagues in widely dispersed timezones - Canada, SE Asia, India and Europe. Yes, I sometimes work "strange" hours ... and often quite late into the night in line with the rest of the world. However, I have developed the necessary discipline and focus to be productive under these conditions. In fact, I can do this anywhere - my key "tools" are a laptop with internet connection and a mobile phone. Working from home gives me the flexibility to work across timezones, travel frequently "on demand" and still maintain a reasonable work-life balance (and my sanity) by addressing the "home" demands and social activities. I'm fortunate in having an adult family and a wife who works away from home, which makes all of this a lot easier. I'm sure it would be a far greater challenge with a young family and people requiring attention at home all day.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've found this little tool to be helpful. Rather than keeping a mental timeclock, it's easier to get it right when the computer keeps your time for you.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

There are a lot of great comments with this article. But I think you hit it on the nose. You need to know yourself. Any self-discipline problems you have -- either too much work or not enough -- needs to be overcome. If not by self-discipline then by a routine or other artificial means. And while the occasional imbalance can be ignored, excessively or too frequently going one way or t'other will cause nothing but problems. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca http://apps.learningcreators.com/blog

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Of course, everyone's different. I don't usually eat lunch, and so I don't start dragging down until about 6PM. Most days I switch gears at 1PM to a regular client's business -- it's like starting a whole new day.

jck
jck

was that I was pushed by the company was to be there whenever the customer called. Thing was, I had customers in CA and TX calling at 7:30am ET. They would be calling before housekeeping shifts came on to have me clean out time system clock buffers and stuff for them. And, I was too nice to tell them no. And then, there was the company thinking that since I was paid salary that 12-14 hour phone support was okay. They had no regard for my personal life even though I did things like support customers when I was on personal vacations in cities where they needed support. So when I do work from home now, I never answer the phone after 6pm and never before 8am. And, I only take calls during lunch if I am expecting them and their number comes up on the caller ID.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, the younger they are the more attention they want. Actually, now that my daughter is entering teen-hood, I kinda wish she would bother me more -- now I'm untouchable (unless there's a problem with her computer, iPod, camera, etc.)

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

I actually just use a daytimer (desk calendar) and a spreadsheet. The daytimer tracks what I was supposed to be working on and what I actually was working on and then I copy the hours to the spreadsheet. Not that efficient but does both sides of the job for me -- which most programs don't. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.TrainingNOW.ca http://apps.LearningCreators.com/blog

mikewor
mikewor

I use a spreadsheet with date, start time, stop time and job (lookup on list of active jobs). Each time I start or stop something, just go to the spreadsheet. At the end of the day/week/month, you have all the data you need to bill, compare to estimate etc. And I check where my 'idle time' goes - I have 'active jobs' for tea break, home tasks, 'time with kids' etc

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

Fine if one has their PC/laptop fired up and in front of them. But that is not always the case in my job. Besides which, I do not bother with a precise count of seconds or minutes. I don't bother to track time in anything less than half hour increments. Why would I? There is a point at which keeping track of and recording too many minute details is more effort than its worth, to you or to a customer or employer. The keeping of a mental time clock is something I do pretty much automatically. Recording and reporting my time based upon which job and which task has been something that's been required of me for a long, long time. Decades. I don't just file the number of hours worked in a week. Its broken down into how much was spent on this or that job, by account or job number, and the sort of work done. i.e. Planning, engineering, programming, travel to or from a job, etc. So its become more or less automatic for me to keep mental track of such things. Add that periodically I break out the old standby ... a pocket notebook ... and make a brief shorthand entry. I don't make such entries at every start and completion of each task. Maybe make notes 3 or 4 times a day. Just to back up my memory, in case I lose track. If I am working on my own desktop or laptop on a project, I have a simple means of recording things. Everything I do, all jobs, have their own folders where I keep all related files. And my system does add time stamps. When working I always to a "Save As", maintaining copies of previous work. A habit, a form of "backup" in case of an Oops or other event. I don't even think about it, I just do it. The apps that allow such, I configure to do incrementally numbered saves. Using my system, between the notebook and a fast glance through the files I can recreate with great accuracy how I spent any day. Or, great ENOUGH accuracy. Like I said, I'm not gonna keep track of seconds and precise minutes. Not worthwhile. IMHO.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Neat little tool Chip, thanks ... only problem is the green on black timer is hard to read. (Hey, I'm getting deaf, dumb and blind as well as old. Okay so one of them has been true somewhat longer than the other two. :) ) Not that it would be hard to change the colours, mind you.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I usually don't answer the phone at all unless it's from the client that I'm currently working for, or I'm already at a lull between things. When I get to such a lull is when I listen to phone messages, read email, etc.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I round my result from the timeclock. It's just too hard to remember everything I do in a day, never mind how long I spent on each one.

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