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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...

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