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How to stay sane when working from home


Struggling to get work done from your dining table? Freelance journalist and work-at-home veteran Adam Turner shares his top tips for finding a balance.

Whether your boss lets you occasionally work from home, or you are your own boss running a business from your dining table, it's important to draw a line between work and play.

Having worked from home for more than 15 years – first as a newspaper staff writer and then as a freelance journalist – I can tell you that I certainly don't miss that daily commute into the city. Flexible work hours are great, especially if you have a young family, but it can be difficult to strike the right balance once the line between work and home starts to blur.

Get into a routine

Back when I worked for the newspaper, I worked from home roughly one day a fortnight. I didn't realise at the time, but it turned out to be great training for working from home full time.

This one day at home was spent reviewing tech products for the paper because there wasn't room to do it at my desk in the office. It needed to be a super-productive day because there was always a backlog of gadgets waiting to be reviewed and returned.

I couldn't afford to have a lazy day around the house, so I didn't take advantage of the opportunity to sleep in or flick on the television in the middle of the day.

You need to remember that it's still a work day and, whether you're an employee or your own boss, you need to produce results if you want to get paid.

Of course, you could work all night and sleep all day but, for most people, that's not a healthy way to live. You'll still need to interact with colleagues during work hours and, just as importantly, you'll still need to interact with family and friends outside work hours. It's important to establish a routine that fits in with the rest of your household.

The best idea is to get ready as if you were leaving for the office and then sit down to start work at 9am, break for lunch and then knock off around 5pm.

The tricky bit isn't getting out of bed, it's getting into the right frame of mind. It's not until you work from home that you appreciate the psychological role your daily commute plays in shifting gears into work mode and then switching off at the end of the day.

Try adding little rituals to your day as signposts. Some people actually walk out the back door in the morning and then in the front door to "arrive" at the office. It might be as simple as declaring your morning coffee the official start of your work day, then putting your laptop away when you want to signify that you're done for the day.

Set up a work space

I'm lucky enough to have a dedicated office in my house, with a decent desk and chair. Not only is it more ergonomically sound than working at the dining room table, it also reduces the impact of my work on the rest of my family – at least in theory.

One of the keys to working from home is to be considerate of the people around you, so having your own work space can help keep the peace.

My wife went back to work part-time after our first child was born and there was tension for a while on the days she was at home, because we were in each other's territory. It forced us to renegotiate the work/home boundaries in the house during the day.

My office is a great place to store my work gear and record my podcast, but I admit I often end up working at the dining room table where there's plenty of natural light and a nice view of the trees. So I've invested in a second office chair, which lives in the corner of the dining room when I'm not working.

This chair is better for my back and shoulders than a dining chair, plus switching chairs is a useful signpost for me – and everyone else in the household – that I'm switching between work and home modes.

When my children get home from school I stop for afternoon tea, then I move out of their way for a while to get some more work done – rather than getting cross with them for being in my way.

Set boundaries

If you want to work more flexible hours then you need to find ways to stop your personal and professional lives intruding on each other.

If you have a family, you won't get the balance right until you, and everyone else in your life, gets their head around the fact that you're a "work-at-home parent" and not a "stay-at-home parent".

Working from home gives you the freedom to take on more of the household chores, but everyone needs to be clear that you're not able to just drop everything anytime they need something. I had one well-meaning friend who took a while to comprehend that he couldn't just pop around to hang out in the middle of the day.

At the same time, you need to be strict with yourself. Don't get into the habit of slacking off during the day with the intention of catching up after hours.

If you want the freedom to do personal things during the day, whether it's hitting the gym or attending parent/teacher interviews, then you need techniques for holding work at bay.

I have a separate landline for work, rather than handing out my home number, so I can easily ignore work calls when I choose. I rarely hand out my mobile number and push people towards email instead. My work email on my smartphone isn't set to push, or it would ping constantly. Instead, it waits until I check my mail. When I'm away from my computer, work can't intrude.

Some jobs obviously demand more contact, but it's still important to establish ways to cocoon yourself from work when you need some down time. Consider using a separate mobile number for work, running a VoIP app on your smartphone or using a smartphone which accepts two SIMs.

Look after yourself

Working from home doesn't just require learning how to work unsupervised effectively, it also means taking responsibility for your own health and wellbeing. It's easy to get into bad habits, especially when you're busy, but remind yourself that getting sick will slow you down even more.

If your job involves mostly sitting in front of a keyboard, like mine, then try to build some exercise into your daily or weekly routine. Choose a time that works best for you, perhaps first thing in the morning while you're still fresh or perhaps at lunchtime or the end of the day, to signal to your body that you're off the clock.

Mental health is just as important as physical health and, when you work from home, it's easy to become a hermit. Even little things are important, like leaving the house to buy a coffee and chat to your favourite barista.

Schedule lunch dates with friends and colleagues, allow for the occasional rostered day off and even try to plan ahead for holidays. Just because you work from home doesn't mean you're not entitled to get away from it all, every now and then.

Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian freelance technology journalist and co-host of weekly podcast Vertical Hold: Behind The Tech News. Former deputy editor of Sydney Morning Herald's biztech section, Adam writes about the technology challenges facing Australian consumers and businesses.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article (which may be subject to change without notice) are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Finder and its employees. The information contained in this article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, investment advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort. Neither the author nor Finder has taken into account your personal circumstances. You should seek professional advice before making any further decisions based on this information.

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