Stay on Track for Productivity

Technology makes it possible to run a business from anywhere—and millions of North American entrepreneurs have packed up their cubicles and headed home to do just that. Although they bade a not-so-fond farewell to commuting, office politics and rigid hours, the solo situation isn’t 100 percent rosy: It’s easy to fall into time-wasting traps that deplete energy and sabotage productivity. We asked working-from-home experts and entrepreneurs to discuss common problems and solutions.

Friends and Family

When Jason Walker started his graphic design company Avant Gèrard in his Long Beach, Calif., home, he quickly realized having a 3-year-old and a newborn around would test his self-discipline. “Not having a designated office space in our open-concept house has been one of the largest challenges I have faced working from home.”

As his coping tactic, Walker treats each workday as if he were going to an office. “I still set my alarm, take my morning walk, go through my morning routine and begin my day at my desk with a cup of coffee. Concentrating is still a work in progress, but nothing a decent set of headphones can’t solve—that is, until you walk back to your desk after a short break and find a 3-year-old on your computer!” (Noise-canceling headphones such as Bose QuietComfort models, which start around $100, mute ambient sounds at home—as well as airplane noise when traveling.)

To work at home with young kids, you’ll need an outside daycare center or an in-home nanny. Some home-based business owners create child-care co-ops, sharing a nanny and splitting the cost.

Lisa Kanarek, a Dallas-based home-office expert, author and founder of WorkingNaked.com, says many entrepreneurs who use home as their headquarters share this thorny situation: Friends and family don’t take the business seriously.

“When I started my first home-based business, [people asked me] to wait at their homes for service people,” she says. “When I pointed out that although I was home, I was still working, they took me seriously.” The takeaway: You should nicely, firmly set boundaries.

Your Schedule

Knowing you have a certain amount of time to get your work done can help you stay productive and on track. Elaine LaPersonerie, who has run her company, Wink Public Relations, from her home in New York City for more than 12 years, agrees and says you have to open and close shop.

“When you work from home, your brain automatically tells you that when you’re home, you should be working,” LaPersonerie says. “Give yourself a startup and shutdown time each night for the following day. Shut your computer off at the end of the day, which will prevent you from popping over and just doing ‘one more thing.’ ”

Debra M. Cohen, founder of the Homeowner Referral Network in Hewlett, N.Y., goes even further—suggesting you divide the workday into blocks of time dedicated to specific tasks. “People tend to work most efficiently when they know that they have a limited number of hours to get something done,” Cohen explains. “Breaking your day into two- to three-hour blocks of time devoted to client calls, writing, paperwork, etc., helps you work more efficiently. Determine when your most productive hours are and schedule your workday accordingly.” You can mark these blocks on your email calendar—Microsoft Outlook, for instance—so it sends you reminders when to stop and start.

Sidestep Time Traps

A huge time-suck for home-based business owners is dealing with computer issues. It might be wise to hire an information technology consultant or subscribe to an online IT service such as AOL Tech Guru ($24.95/month) or CMIT (prices vary by location) to help troubleshoot problems 24/7.

More time-wasters: social media and web-surfing. Check that Facebook page, start following a couple of interesting threads, and BOOM! 45 minutes vanish. Looking up that new restaurant to make reservations for Friday night, get sidetracked reading the reviews, and BOOM! 20 minutes evaporate.

How do you curb those impulses? Mariana Abeid-McDougall, personal trainer and owner of Kingston, Ontario-based Achiever Fitness, identifies plenty of tools that can stop your dilly-dallying. If you’re distracted by web-surfing or checking Facebook, use tools such as StayFocused from Google (free), or apps like Freedom ($10) or Anti-Social ($15), which block surfing for a specified period.

Give Yourself a Break

Sometimes being isolated can be detrimental to the work process, or—as LaPersonerie believes—make you more stressed. To counteract the aloneness, reach out to others for a vital break; when you resume work afterward, you’re likely to return to high productivity. “You must leave your desk for 30 to 60 minutes a day to refresh yourself,” LaPersonerie says. “Schedule a meeting or lunch with a friend; take the dog for a walk, run an errand—anything. Just be sure to leave the house!”

When you’re stuck, you can’t do a spontaneous brainstorm with a cube-mate. The best alternative for solo workers is to get away from the problem, experts say—even very briefly—and get your blood (and/or creative juices) flowing. Try working out to an exercise tape, doing some sit-ups, taking a short walk or bike ride, or heading to the gym for a quick workout with friends or an exercise class.

Kanarek also shares these ways to escape from a rut:

➨ Pack up your laptop and head to your local coffee shop. Being around others who are working could motivate you to work, too. You don’t have to talk with anyone. The energy from the coffee shop could spark a breakthrough.

➨ Set up a Skype session to video-chat over the Internet with another home-based business owner. Share ideas, give opinions and motivate each other to keep moving forward.

➨ Play music. A home office that’s too quiet can be stifling.

➨ Pick up a pad of sticky notes to record your ideas. Go to a blank wall and think of as many ideas as you can, write them on the notes, and then slap them on the wall. Review and refine them, and you may well find a winner.

➨ Create a vision board on a blackboard or whiteboard that illustrates your goals, dreams and wishes. When you get stuck, use the board as a road map to stay on track and get back to work.

➨ Rearrange your home office. Move your desk near the window or away from it. Bring in plants or artwork to brighten the space, or add photos of your family. Your home office should be a place that inspires you.

Rieva Lesonsky, former editorial director for Entrepreneur magazine, has been honored as a “Champion of Small Business” and as one of the nation’s top 100 Small Business Influencers.

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