5 REAL Tips for Working from Home

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I’ve been self-employed since 1997, which means I’ve worked mostly from home – and often in my underwear. When I tell this to full-time employees I meet socially, their reaction is always the same. It’s either, “I could never do that” or “Eww, that’s gross.”

So why don’t most full-timers want to work at home, in their underwear or even fully clothed? “I would never get anything done, it would be too distracting.” Those are the words of my wife, who leaves the house every morning while I stay behind.

At first, I encouraged this line of thinking because it benefited me – I didn’t want to tell my friends or even my wife that working at home is easy. Hey, if they want to think I possess super-human self-discipline, fine by me.

But over the years and especially during this stubborn recession, more and more folks are being forced to work at home, and more and more websites are doling out ridiculous advice about how to do it. Sadly, little of that advice is actually the useful stuff I learned the hard way – or my brother learned. He’s self-employed, too. While I’m a writer of articles like this one, he’s a computer programmer who writes iPhone and iPad apps.

So here’s what the Koretzky boys have learned…

1. Worry about work, not your desk

If you Google, “how to work from home,” almost all of the results fall into two categories: websites offering you work-at-home jobs, and websites that warn you about the sites offering you work-at-home jobs – many are scams.

Dig deeper and you’ll find the next most popular category: posts about How to Set Up A Home Office and The Ultimate Home Office. Here you’ll find advice about spending money instead of making money: buy a new desk, buy a new office chair, buy a new filing cabinet.

Usually, these sites are riddled with ads for office furniture, which should instantly make you suspicious. (This is my favorite because it’s the most blatant.)

What amuses me about this obsession with office furniture is that when I was full-timer, I never had any control over my workspace. As soon as I landed a new job, my boss told me which cubicle to sit in. I inherited an office chair molded to someone else’s butt and a computer with someone else’s crumbs in the keyboard. And you know what? I did my job and didn’t think twice about it.

During my first year working at home, I didn’t buy one stick of furniture. I sat in a yellow folding chair that I found in the back of my closet. Ergonomics didn’t matter to me for two big reasons…

  1. I was broke and more worried about eating.
  2. Since I worked at home, I could get up and move around whenever I felt like it, without worrying about my boss glaring at me.

Eventually, I bought a used office chair and a new desk that suited the work I was doing. So here’s my first piece of advice: Set up your home business first and your home office later. Eventually, when you start making money, you can spend some of it on upgrading your workspace. After a few months of working at home, you’ll know exactly what you’ll need – and what you don’t.

2. Clutter doesn’t matter

Google this: “home office clutter.” You’ll get 422,000 results like 10 Steps to Clutter Free Your Home Office, which breathlessly advise you to spend money on “color coded files” and “wheeled furniture.”

Even a respected news source like CBS News suggests in Tame Home Office Clutter that you buy a “modular system,” a “magnetic board,” and “a desktop organizer that sits right underneath your keyboard.” What’s so funny is that I’ve been to the CBS newsroom, albeit many years ago, and I never saw any of these things.

Here’s what I know about clutter: Some people work fine with it. A reporter I worked with at a large daily newspaper had a very messy desk. That didn’t stop her from winning a Pulitzer Prize.

You probably know many people who have a messy desk or office, but they can always find what they’re looking for. Of course, move that item six inches in any direction, and it’ll be lost forever. Still, just as with office furniture, don’t let a website guilt you into buying crap you don’t need with the promise that those expensive items will increase your productivity.

When you work at home, oftentimes you’re either really busy or really bored. During a big project under a tight deadline, you’ll make a harried mess of your house. You need to know that’s OK and even typical of our kind.

When you worked in an office, perhaps your boss told you to clean your desk and you felt peer pressure to do so because your neighbors had spotless cubicles. But one big advantage to working at home is that you can set a pace and a style that suits you – without being judged by others.

3. Discipline comes from within

If you take the advice of most websites, you’ll never get any work done. Especially when they suggest how to get work done. This is typical

Set regular hours at home and don’t stop to do the laundry, fix the squeaky door or have a second cup of coffee before you start. During your working day, use your time to produce, whether it’s making a product or placing sales calls. If possible, find a path to your office that skips the kid’s room and laundry basket. Wave goodbye to the family at the front door and then walk directly to work. Do not pass the kitchen, do not pause at the television. Go to work.

Trust me, you won’t last a month doing that. Why? Let me count the ways…

You need to stop working every so often.

In an office, no one works eight hours straight. I’m reminded of that line from the movie Office Space: “I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work.” That’s funny because it’s true. In an office, you chat with coworkers, surf the web, grab a cup of coffee in the break room. Deny yourself those breaks when you’re at home, and you’ll soon hate your job.

You need to do the laundry and other chores.

In an office, the breaks from work are time-killers. At home, they’re life savers. I feel much better about my job, and my wife feels much better about me, when the laundry is done during the week. And it’s wonderfully mindless work. When I leave my computer stuck on a project, I usually return after cleaning the bathroom with the perfect solution.

You need to set your own schedule.

My boss here at Money Talks News will email me at six in the morning. The awesome IT guy will email me at three in the morning. My brother will work until midnight and then hit the 24-hour gym. Working at home can be so productive because you settle into your own ideal schedule, instead of an artificial one set by your boss. If you try to deny yourself this, you will indeed find it impossible to stay disciplined.

Bottom line: The freedom of working at home isn’t a temptation to slack off as much as it’s an invitation to dig in.

4. Eating yourself out of house and home

Here’s something I’ve never seen mentioned on all those work-at-home websites: Finding the discipline to work is much easier than avoiding the urge to eat.

At the office, lunch hour is set and the vending machines are limited. At home, it’s tempting to take those 15-minute breaks and raid the fridge. As my brother so eloquently puts it…

“Try not to eat everything you have. At an office, you don’t get unrestricted access to all of your food. If you want to snack, you can hit a vending machine, but that small cost adds up over time. When you have a bunch of snacks at your house, you can plop the bag next to you, and before you know it, it’s gone. Plan to actually eat lunch instead.”

When I started working at home, I gained five pounds – even though I was exercising more because I had time in my day to do so. (Another great advantage to working at home those websites never mention: You get to go to the gym in the middle of the day when no one is there.)

My own solution is to never eat at my desk and to chew lots of sugar-free gum when I’m mired in a project I don’t like.

5. Other stuff they don’t tell you

Here’s a collection of miscellaneous stuff I’ve never read a word about online…

Most folks realize that working at home is fraught with financial pitfalls, like no employer benefits and retirement plans. (Check out our 10 Tips for Working for Yourself – without Working Yourself to Death for details on that.) But as my brother once again explains, “The biggest benefits I have seen are lowered gas expense, not dealing with rush hour traffic, and not spending a lot of money on lunch (which is a cost that adds up incredibly quickly).” So there are hidden advantages that can add up to real savings.

Working at home is also a quality of life issue for my wife and I. Just last month, I turned down a full-time job offer for more money – in a recession! – because we both agreed we benefit in intangible ways from my working at home. Some of them include…

  • Getting our cars repaired during a weekday when business is slow, so we don’t have to leave a car at the shop on a weekend when they’re slammed.
  • Buying fresh fruit and vegetables for dinner because I can duck out in the middle of the day (and even though I’m not much of a cook, I make dinner many evenings).
  • Doing all the household chores during the week so we never have to do any on the weekend – leaving more time for recreation and relaxing.

Finally, there are many ways to work at home, and don’t let anyone tell you different. For instance, as I mentioned, I like working at home in my underwear. But my brother doesn’t…

Unless you are working at crunch time, prepare somewhat like you are going to go to an office. That usually means changing into regular clothes (jeans for me). Also try to go out for a walk around outside for a few minutes as if you were going to lunch to avoid cabin fever. Last week was tough, as things were on a deadline, so I woke up and started working right away and didn’t get time to do those things. At the end of day, I felt more drained than if I had gone into the office.

Vive la difference.

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