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Working at Home?

How to Remain Sane/Productive.

A home based office sounds exciting as a concept.

It is not uncommon for our clients to report feeling a sense of "unreality" as they work with the usual office tools in this unusual setting.

Where is Your Desk?

The ideal home office environment is a private room, away from the bedroom. The reality is that you may have to take over the guest room or a corner of the kitchen. Here are some sugges¬tions regarding the physical space of a home-based office.

Have a dedicated work space. Working on the kitchen table is acceptable, but it is hard to keep papers organized. Using the top of the guest room dresser is only a short term solution. Long term use of a bedroom dresser may create lower back problems. A desk is, after all, designed for people to be sitting and bending over slightly.

Don't have a desk and lack the money to buy a good one? Purchase two three drawer file metal cabinets. Go to a lumber supply shop and purchase a wooden plank as desk top.

If you should get a job that provides you with office space then tear up the wooden plank and chuck it into the hearth while you toast your new job by the flicker of the fire.

Social Signal Clothing

The late Brandeis University psychologist, Abraham Maslow, told of his need for quiet while trying to work in a home office. At the time, he had small children who would constantly interrupt him.

From the child perspective, dad seemed to be doing nothing but staring into space. Surely he must be ready to "play." From a spouse's perspective, it might also appear that the person at the desk has time for home chores.

Maslow purchased a fireman's hat. He told his children and his wife that when he was around the home with his fireman's hat on, it meant that he was working. They should pretend that he was invisible.

The Fireman's Hat or other signaling clothing allows family members to understand the need of adults to be alone without being made to feel rejected.

When using signaling clothes with young children, it is important that it not be used for other purposes. Multi-purpose uses can easily confuse children and adults.

And remove the signaling clothing when you are ready to engage with your family.

Working To Time vs. Working to Task

Work in a "regular" office environment is often character¬ized by short spurts of intense concentration punctuated by frequent interrup¬tions. These interruptions include colleagues walking in, phone calls, etc.

According to University of Southern California P¬rofessor Ian Mitroff, the average senior manager sel¬dom has more than twenty minutes of uninterrupted time.

In a home office, such distractions are minimized. This minimal distraction allows for intense con¬centration. The downside is that it is too easy to intensely con¬centrate on unproductive activities.

In the management of tasks, there is a law of diminishing returns: after a certain period of time, more time on a given task may not necessarily yield better results. You need to take a break!
Instead of working to "task completion," find your natural work rhythm and work to "time completion."

My natural productivity rhythm is 40-45 minutes. Beyond that time, The Law of Diminishing Returns begins to take effect for me.

I purchased a digital watch with a count-down feature. An electronic egg timer will also do the trick. I organize my daily work into chunks of time. Each period is 45 minutes long. When the alarm rings, it is time to switch tasks. I alternate work with a chunk of time for walking, reading the newspapers, exercise, eating, etc.

By working to "time" versus working to "task," I program the disruptions that take place naturally at work.

Honor the Rituals That Work for You.

People are accustomed to wearing certain "work clothes" when "work¬ing" and "informal" clothes when at home. What about when you are working at home? It might be useful to dress as though you are going to put in a full day's work. Why change a successful ritual?

Another ritual of work is your unique sleep-wake cycle pattern. My normal rhythm is to go to bed at 10:00PM and to get up at 5:00AM. When working at home, it is easy to extend the sleep time to 1 or 2 AM. Nobody cares if you wake up at 9 or 10 AM. The problem with changing the sleep-wake cycle is that it becomes too easy to develop rituals that can conflict with the rhythm of the business day.

For example, since most people eat lunch between 12 and 1PM, it is not uncommon for people to begin feeling logy around 2 to 3PM. That is why that time of day is often called siesta, coffee break, tea time, etc. People's natural rhythm is often "up" between 9:00am-10:00am and 4:00-5:30pm. When you meet someone whose natural cycle makes her "up," you don't want to be in a biological "down" cycle.

Stick to the work habits that have served you well. Have you learned to love watching the David Letterman Show? DVD it!


Laurence J. Stybel, Ed.D., CMF is President of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire in Boston and Executive in Residence at the Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University. He is on the Board of Governors of the Institute for Career Certification International, the global body that certifies excellence in career management. (

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