Wednesday, October 12, 2011

8 Time-Management Tips For Working From Home

© Andrew Finegan
Working from home can feel like a juggling act at the best of times.  It’s not easy to balance the kids, dishes, and laundry with a never-ending stream of emails, conference calls, and project assignments.  How do people that work from home do it?  After four years working from home myself, I can say with certainty that it is a dynamic juggling act that changes all the time. 
One of the first things I had to learn was time-management skills.  Making a to do list everyday just didn’t cut it.  I found I would work like crazy and still have a number of things left on the list, leaving me feeling incredibly frustrated.  I have since learned that every part of my day needs to be purposeful and I need to work smarter, not harder.  Here are some time management tips to consider if you’re currently working or planning to work form home:

1.     Set Priorities
This may seem like a given, but I found it very easy to loose sight of my priorities while working from home.  Many people choose to work from home because it is one way to stay home with their kids and still make an income.  Sometimes I feel my priorities of work and family are at war with each other.  What helped me was physically writing down all my responsibilities (e.g., home, family, work projects, volunteer commitments) and then organizing them numerically in order of importance.  This is also very helpful when juggling multiple projects.  I keep the list on a sticky note above my desk and rearrange it frequently when my priorities change.  It’s a constant reminder of what comes first.  This way I devote adequate time to my priorities.

2.     Write Down Routines
Setting routines for regular responsibilities is essential; it allows you to save your mental energy for more important tasks.  It may seem a little daunting at first, but once you actually write down your daily and weekly routines it takes the guesswork out of accomplishing them.  I got started with routines a couple years ago by following FlyLady for a couple of months.  Now I have routines set up for getting up in the morning, housework, afterschool, after supper, getting ready for bed, etc.  I have even created simple routines for my young kids using pictures to help them remember what they need to do at different times of the day, encouraging their independence.  Scheduling when these routines are going to happen allows time for undistracted office hours.  

3.     Maintain To-Do Lists
I imagine the to-do list is probably the oldest time-management technique available.  I’ve read lots of ways to write such lists and accomplish them.  I like Penelope Trunk's approach to doing daily tasks while still accomplishing long term goals.  Lately I’ve been using a free online tool called Wunderlist to organize to-do lists for several different projects.  I sit down at the beginning of the week and write down everything I can think of that needs to get accomplished.  I group like tasks and then schedule a day and time to get it done.  I track all of this through Wunderlist.  It’s also handy when I need to figure out all the tasks I’ve accomplished in the last month for invoicing purposes. 

4.     Minimize Distractions
When I first started working from home I found it very difficult to get anything done.  I would sit down at the computer and would get called away by a crying baby, a load of laundry, or phone calls.  It took me a while to figure out the best time of day to work without external interruptions.  Then I had to set consistent daily office hours, alleviating the pressure to be on the computer 24/7 checking for emails and replying immediately while trying to juggle my home and kids.  I could also confidently tell others, “Sorry I have to work at that time.”  If you take your work seriously enough to have office hours, others will begin to respect your time.

Office hours do not have to be the traditional 9 – 5.  You may find your best office hours could be early in the morning, during nap time (if you have kids), or in the evening after everyone else is in bed.  Figuring out the best time with the least external distractions is only half the problem, eliminating the internal distracting thoughts is harder.  I finally found a great time-management system called the Pomodoro Technique.  It helps me organize my time to minimize internal distractions and accomplish tasks one chunk at a time.

5.     Create a Schedule
Take your daily and weekly routines, your office hours, and other regular tasks, and put them onto a schedule.  Many self-employed people like to chunk their time.  “Chunking” is the opposite of multi-tasking; focusing on one task at a time so you can finish it faster and better.  Be sure to chunk in time to maintain your work life balance, including adequate sleep, healthy eating, exercise, relaxing activities, and time with family and friends.  Going hard on a project may seem heroic, but you’ll regret it when you feel burnt out with no energy to give to other projects or people.    Some find it handy to keep their schedule on them in a day planner or personal electronic device.  I spend most of my time at home, so I use a large magnetic fridge calendar and a pencil to organize everyone’s activities, appointments, and commitments.  The weekly schedule is also printed and hanging next to it.

6.     Schedule White Space
Leave margins in your schedule!  If you fill up every space with a task there is no time to deal with the unexpected, such as doctors appointments, pressing phone calls, and other opportunities.  Don’t leave yourself boxed in with no room for choices.  Be sure to leave some white space in your day for when “life” happens.  Remember you cannot add to an already full life.  When something new comes up you may have to let go of other responsibilities to make room. 

7.     Be Realistic
When you see everything you expect of yourself in black and white then you can determine if your expectations are realistic.  Try out your new schedule for a couple of weeks and see if it works.  A few things may require some creative solutions.  You’ll find as the seasons change your schedule will need updating as well as you add in new activities and projects and take away old ones.

8.     Try Outsourcing
If you realize you are not a superhero after all and you can’t do it all, then outsourcing may be for you.  It’s very difficult to juggle every task and responsibility while working from home.  It’s very important that every person in your family be on board with your plan to get everything done.  Take a look at some of your responsibilities and see if you can relieve the pressure by having family members assume some of the household chores or by outsourcing some tasks.     

As my life and responsibilities change so does the time management techniques that I employ.  I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and tools to help me accomplish more.  What tips help you juggle working from home?
Miranda Vande Kuyt is a self-employed project and communications consultant. She is the facilitator of the “Look Before You Leap: Self-Employment Survival Strategies” online course through