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7 Essential Strategies for Working at Home

Working from home

I have a friend in a tough but common situation.

This is a true story, but it’s not just about my friend. It’s about you, too, or someone you know. It goes like this:

A mother with two young children re-enters the workforce only to realize that her net pay—after daycare costs, commuting costs, and other work-related expenses—is hardly worth the effort.

In the case of my friend, we’re talking $100 a week. That’s $100 for over 50 hours of work if she includes morning routines (dressing the kids, packing their daycare bags), dropping the kids off, heading to work, picking the kids up, and driving back home.

She’s smart and hard-working. She has a four-year degree and a solid work history, and she was hired quickly after an extended maternity leave left her jobless. Now that she’s landed a new position, though, her number-crunching makes her wonder if it’s worth it. Wouldn’t working at home make more sense?

If you’re thinking of working at home (or already are), you need strategies.

My friend’s predicament isn’t unusual, and it’s not exclusive to young mothers.

A combination of part-time freelance writing and teaching a class or two was fine while I was married. After divorce, though, I wanted a steady job with health insurance benefits. But my résumé shouted overqualified and under-experienced, and I finally landed a temporary gig with pay that didn’t justify the costs. My only choice was to jump back into freelancing (and blogging) full time, and I’m glad I did.

But no matter what your home-based business is, working at home has its own set of challenges.

So before you get started—or even if you’re already working at home—follow these seven essential strategies to make the transition easier.

1. Guard your time.

Neighbors, family, and friends might not understand working at home means you’re, well, working. And suddenly they want more of your time and attention than ever. Hard as it might be, though, you just have to say no, even if it means letting voicemail take calls. And if you get flak, stay firm but cheerful—they’ll get it soon enough. (But do return voicemails promptly.)

Schedule blocks of time for email and think business media instead of social media. Limit Facebook and Twitter—or your favorite online hangout— unless it’s business related. Shut off the TV. Cut the texting, the gaming, and non-work-related activities during the work hours you set for yourself. Make your time all about work whether you’ve scheduled 20 hours or 40. No excuses.

2. If your budget is tight, cut your expenses.

Working at home usually lowers expenses drastically. But if income will be shaky at first, do some planning.

What don’t you need? Give up or cut back on non-essentials like Starbucks, frequent dinners out, lunch with the gals, beer with the guys, new clothes, and shiny new toys. Cut back on holiday or birthday gift giving and anything not strictly necessary.

When you’re used to having plenty of discretionary income, it can be hard. But the last thing you want to do is rack up a credit card balance you can’t pay at month’s end.

And review your checking or credit/debit accounts, including PayPal, for subscriptions you don’t use and don’t have time for. $29 a month here and $19 month there add up fast.

3. Surround yourself with like-minded supporters.

Socialize with people who run their own small business, and spend less time with people who try to discourage you.

Your parents don’t like what you’re doing? Friends roll their eyes? Limit discussions about your work with anyone who doesn’t get it. Hang around those who do.

And consider joining (or starting!) a Facebook group, forum, or mastermind group aimed at bringing together home-based business owners and freelancers. Search Meetup with “entrepreneurs” in your area, and you might even find a local LinkedIn group. And check out the local chamber of commerce or other business organization for networking events.

Finding your tribe, your work family, or a business-related social network is an important part of working at home, and it’ll make it easier to deal with the naysayers.

4. Set up your own office.

It doesn’t have to be fancy.

As long as you have a space where you can work undisturbed, you’ve got an office. A desk is nice, but a table will do. Storage space is also important.

But plenty of people call libraries and coffee shops the “office,” and their storage system is a backpack. It depends on the type of work you’re doing and what kind of equipment you need.

If you already have a home office or can renovate an extra bedroom, great. But if not, don’t sweat it. Do you have an unused corner in a family room? How about a little-used walk-in closet? Or any kind of closet?

My “office” is in a corner of my living room. It’s just an average, L-shaped desk with a few plastic storage boxes underneath and a comfy chair. I keep additional, rarely used supplies and books in a closet.

Just make sure you have a space you can call your own or an arrangement that works for you, no matter what kind of “office” it is.

5. Your own laptop or desktop computer is essential.

You probably have your own equipment, but families often share a computer. If that’s your situation—and buying your own isn’t in the budget yet—rules have to be set.

If the computer is “yours” from 9am to 3pm, own it. Own that time. Get your work done. If a blizzard means the kids are home from school, it’s still your computer time. Even if you negotiate and make exceptions once in awhile, make it clear that when you need to work, that’s final.

And if sharing a computer gets too complicated, plan on getting your own as soon as you can. What would you spend on childcare, transportation, wardrobe updates, or anything else for a “regular” job? Trade it for a tax deductible business expense.

6. Set specific work hours.

This can be tough when you have a family, especially young kids. But it’s hard for anyone.

Plan on working at times when you’re least likely to be interrupted. If that means starting at 4 a.m. and working for a few hours here and a few hours there through the day, so be it. Maybe you can hire a local college student to play with the kids in the afternoon. It’s cheaper than daycare, right?

And watch out for rationalizing non-work activities. A refreshing walk on the first nice day of spring—just what you need! A matinée or long lunches with friends when you feel frustrated—everyone needs a break, right? Grocery shopping or laundry mid-afternoon because you didn’t do it on the weekend—could you do that if you had a “regular” job?

Treat working at home like a real job because it is a real job, and report on schedule no matter what kind of schedule you’ve set for yourself.

7. Feel the fear. But. Do. It. Anyway.

Fear is normal. Fear is natural. Fear won’t kill you. 

But it’s hard to venture out of your comfort zone even when you’re unhappy with it. If the traditional job doesn’t work for you, though—if 40 hours of work each week only amounts to $100 after expenses—what’s the point?

You’ll have new tasks, like finding clients. Negotiating prices. Creating or paying for a blog or website. Sending invoices and keeping track of expenses. Learning new software. Depending on your business, you might have tangible products and inventory, accounts receivable and payable, delivering and managing returns or guarantees. Some tasks might be familiar, others not so much. Some are easy and familiar, while others are difficult and terrifying.

Taking the first steps toward working at home is the scary part. It’s like jumping from a high dive into a cold pool before you learn how to swim. But before you know it, you learn to swim, the water gets warm, and that diving board shrinks down to a boogie board.

If working at home is right for you, do it, but be ready to follow new strategies.

If a “regular job” works for you, great. But if that job just doesn’t make sense, then maybe it’s time to make the break. Just do it. You’ll get better at it as you go along—like anything, it takes practice. And practice makes perfect. And before you know it, you’ll be zooming along.

Do you work from home? Any tips to share? Comments are always welcome.

Photo credit: David Martyn Hunt

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